Transparency and Compliance
The Strength of EU Lobbying Regulations
This essay discusses the outright robustness of the European Union's lobbying regulations in comparison to the regulations in the EU countries, concluding that it is on par with or surpasses regulatory strength in the states.
The interactions between politicians and lobbyists present a challenge to governments’ transparency and accountability, and affect supranational entities like the European Union. Before evaluating a lobby’s influence, it is necessary to understand what exactly defines these groups and how they interact with governments. ‘Lobbyists’, which will be used synonymously with ‘interest groups’, are defined as those seeking to influence the outputs of a given policy-making process. Lobbyists attempt to support their interests by affecting policy outputs through methods like maintenance of a status quo or the implementation of a new policy.
In response to lobbyist manipulation, recent policy trends have been in favor of controlling lobbying by creating level playing fields for interest groups to operate. Such policy trends include an expansion of the European Union’s lobbying rules over time. In 1996, the European Parliament introduced provisions for simple yearly passes for lobbyists seeking access to the Parliament building. The European Commission implemented its own rules that likewise lacked teeth in 2008 by instituting a voluntary lobbyist register. The bodies’ recent replacement regulation, the Joint Transparency Register (JTR), has prompted a re-evaluation of the EU’s robustness in terms of lobbying controls, especially when considering the precedents set by national governments. Scholars in the field take robustness to mean “the capacity of the regulation to increase transparency and accountability,” which reflects the rules’ level of usage and reliability. Though there is certainly room to strengthen its provision of regulations regarding lobbyists, the EU is holistically and comparatively more robustly regulatory than EU member nations in managing interest groups. This lead is earned both by having regulations in the first place and by these rules’ ability to equal or surpass the robustness of lobbying regulations in the EU’s member states.
First, a brief overview of the implications of the JTR for the EU and its lobbyists is necessary to more clearly understand how the regulations imposed by the JTR compare with the regulations enacted its constituent states. The JTR’s stated goal was to increase transparency, replacing regulatory structures in the Parliament and Commission for a joint registration for all lobbyists. Transparency and accountability are the two main goals associated with lobbying regulation. These standards aim to let voters know who influences whom and allow them to see the degree to which a given politician or lobbyist is responsible for a policy. The EU’s definition of a lobbyist expanded “to include law firms, NGOs, think tanks - indeed any organization or self-employed individual engaged in influencing EU policy making and implementation.” This expansion ensures that no agents seeking to affect policy can find a loophole or excuse to avoid the option of registering for the JTR. The most crucial detail about the JTR in this sense is its voluntary nature: since it allows the option for groups not to register, one can question the extent to which such a transparency register can be effective. Still, the JTR did strengthen disclosure provisions and data accessibility with measures such as necessitating yearly reports on personal and organization information and financial details at the time of register (though notably not in regular reports thereafter). All of this information was then made available to the public online. Finally, registration required compliance with a code of conduct that includes pledges against dishonesty, incentives for disclosure, and mechanisms to handle breaches of the code. Scholars Chari and Crepaz maintain that interest groups have largely complied with the JTR system, suggesting that many of the goals the JTR had in its launch have proven successful.
In several ways, the regulations imposed by the JTR are on par with other European countries. In terms of the Centre for Public Integrity’s index of lobbying regulation robustness, the JTR’s regulations fall directly in the middle of the EU nations’ regulation ratings, with a score of 31. Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Austria received higher scores, and Poland, the UK, France, and Germany received lower. This measure indicates that the JTR is indeed more robust than some, but falls short of others, with almost a twenty-point difference between it and the most regulated European lobby (Slovenia at 49). Notably, the JTR proposes more stringent regulations than the major constituent EU states, suggesting that the EU does more to control the actions of its lobbyists than the national entities that wield much of the power within it. This is especially true for Italy, who has no interest group regulation at all. Additionally, if judging instead by specific provisions of the JTR, the EU’s system again proves to be average in many dimensions. All states mentioned above in the CPI index have a register for lobbyists of some kind, which defines the substance of the JTR. Additionally, provisions like its code of conduct and voluntary nature are mirrored in countries like France and the UK. Like the public lists of lobbyists found in Poland and Germany, the individuals and groups registered under JTR are openly accessible on the internet. These measures all help establish the rules of the game and increase transparency and accountability in the overall process of lobbying. These aims are desirable because they give actors more information and require justification of one’s actions to the public. Thus, the EU and its JTR prove to be just as strong in a range of provisions as the other member states regulating interest groups.
As much as the EU is on par with member nations that regulate lobbying, it is distinctly advanced among the other countries in Europe that do not have rules at all. Of the about fifty European nations, including the EU, only nine have enacted laws to regulate lobbying to speak of. Thus, in its implementation of any regulations at all, the EU proves to be ahead of the curve. Some may argue that many of the states lacking lobbying rules do not need them because they do not have the same scope of lobbyists present as those systems with laws; this may be true, but not relevant to the question at hand evaluating outright robustness. Additionally, there have been many calls for increased regulation throughout Europe in general, to achieve the stated aims of increased transparency and accountability. Transparency International, a group centered on fighting corruption, released a 2015 report evaluating lobbying in Europe, its effectiveness, and its future. It concluded that the EU Commission’s rules are among one of only two of the nineteen European entities that score above 50% on its measures of transparency, integrity, and equality of access. The authors also note that only seven of the entities feature any lobbyist-specific regulations, a fact which in the report it finds problematic and wishes to see changed. Hence, the EU already surpasses many nations in its rule robustness simply by having regulations, regardless of what the regulations entail. Still, it becomes clear upon scrutiny that the details of the JTR’s regulation also prove more stringent than those of its European counterparts.
This finding is true especially regarding the disclosure of financial information, the level of compliance, and the scope of lobbyists to which the rules apply. The JTR requires an initial submission of information concerning an organization’s spending and activity, and each type of lobbyist must disclose varying levels of financial information at this stage. Though it does not require yearly spending reports, this documenting of finances is equivalent with, or stronger than, all other governments with registers. For comparison, Germany requests no information at all, nor does Poland. Lithuania requires yearly spending and salary reports, which appears more robust than the EU, but compliance with its register is thought to be very low; 2004 estimates place the number of lobbyists registered at about one in seven of those who operate within the state. Austria, too, requests yearly reports, but, similarly, this regulation does not effectively apply to many lobbyists. By these terms, then, the manner in which the JTR requests financial information makes it stronger in interest group transparency, who cannot in theory spend considerable sums of money without at least some documentation. Money often captures influence in government, so it follows that financial disclosures are also significant in terms of accountability at the EU level. The JTR provides an effective medium for this disclosure, unlike most of its peers.
Also related to this discussion are issues of compliance levels, for disclosures of any type do not matter if no one complies. In their recent comparative study of the JTR, Crepaz, and Chari found that based on the registration and spending disclosures of the largest corporations seeking to influence the EU, it can be concluded that firms are taking the JTR more seriously, with all examined firms registering and giving seemingly more accurate spending disclosures. Comparatively, this is quite remarkable, as many other registration systems see low levels of compliance. Chari, Hogan, and Murphy find that in Lithuania, Hungary (whose 2003 regulations have been removed), and Poland, regulations are often ignored or maneuvered around, often because the term ‘lobbyist’ retains negative connotations. The 2013 Venice Report on the Role of Lobbying puts forward a similar argument about Germany, explaining that “not being on the register is no real barrier to being in contact with Parliamentary committees or members of the Bundestag.” With ability and ease to get around lobbying regulations, then, the regulations prove somewhat ineffective in Germany as well. Yet, as Crepaz and Chari point out, the JTR has in fact seen increased registration by EU interest groups since its adoption. Low effectiveness in complying with registration could also be related to the scope of lobbyists to which the legislation applies, which in the EU is all activity, but in most other nations is narrowly defined. This scope and compliance indicates success on the part of the JTR in terms of transparency over the aforementioned countries, as it comes closer to the ideal of providing the most information about influence in political systems.
Finally, the EU does feature less regulation for lobbyists in some dimensions of transparency and accountability that at first glance makes it seem like the JTR is not very robust, yet in practice this observation proves untrue. The first such category which the JTR lacks is a set of provisions regarding the so-called ‘revolving door’, preventing civil servants from immediately working as lobbyists and vice versa. The JTR fails to prevent such capacity for corruption. However, of the four European nations studied by Chari, Hogan, and Murphy, only Lithuania has these rules. Further, Transparency International explains that most of the countries it studied have some sort of “cooling-off period” for officials, but Slovenia was the only one to implement the period for legislators. And yet, it also reports that none of these countries had “effective monitoring and enforcement of the revolving door provisions,” calling into question the effectiveness of the laws even where they exist. Furthermore, Crepaz and Chari recognize that the EU Commission, top officials, and the EP all have internal revolving door regulations. Therefore, even if the JTR itself does not provide cooling-off periods, the issue is effectively dealt with in other ways, which is not the case for the EU countries that on paper seem more regulated. Despite appearances, then, the EU still emerges with more robust and effective regulations than most, if not all, of its EU counterparts.
For its strengths and advances, however, the JTR does have several other comparative drawbacks that leave room for improvement in relation to other European state entities. Primarily, it could make its law mandatory, as Austria and Slovenia have sought to do, to improve relative robustness. Transparency International analyzed the effective impact of Slovenia’s mandatory register and found that it operates on a “wholly inadequate scope covering only a small proportion of lobbyists,” because it defines interest groups so narrowly. An analysis of the Austrian system found similar results. In this way, the EU regulations are still arguably as strong as Slovenia’s and Austria’s laws, because they apply to a much broader scope of lobbyists and are complied with, as evidenced earlier by Chari and Crepaz. This engenders more compliance with and operation within the register in the EU. Aside from implementing a mandatory register, another way the JTR is comparatively less robust involves its sanctions and enforcements, of which it has few. Slovenia, Lithuania, and Austria score higher on the CPI index much for this reason. For example, Slovenia has a Commission for the Prevention of Corruption (CPC) that provides oversight on many types of lobbyists, such as professional, in-house, and lobbyists from private sector interest organizations. Though the JTR has a Secretariat intended to watch activity, its only effective power is naming and shaming, which Crepaz and Chari find especially problematic given the voluntary nature of the register. As always, though, one must keep in mind that although the JTR is less regulated in oversight, its high compliance and the often low enrolment in other countries problematizes deeming the JTR less robust due to its less strict enforcement and sanction rules. Still, in these areas there is room for improvement of the JTR in comparison to other EU nations.
Ultimately, on most dimensions the JTR proves generally stronger than, if not at least as strong as, its counterpart laws in EU member nations. In providing a voluntary register, public internet accessibility, and a code of conduct, the EU regulations are in line with the rules of its peers. In fact, in even having a register at all, EU lobbying laws are more robust than the lobbying regulations found in the majority of EU nations. When one examines precedents of financial disclosures, levels of compliance, scope of application, and even revolving door rules, the JTR is arguably strongest among its counterparts in effectively handling them. One must note that the voluntary nature of the JTR and its enforcement mechanisms could be improved considering the rules of countries scoring higher than the EU on the CPI index, even if these rules are not effectively followed.
Overall, regardless of the diverse characteristics of distinct regimes, lobbying regulation systems seek to achieve the ideals of transparency and accountability. Considering the totality of the strengths mentioned above, by increasing public access to the entities and insight into their inner workings, the JTR moves the EU much closer to these goals than other regulating systems have proven to accomplish. Still, even if the EU is more regulated, it is not precluded from needing to further strengthen its provisions. A mandatory system of registration, for example, would ensure maximum transparency and accountability through behavioral regulation, as argued by Direnc Kanol. In the realms of financial disclosures and sanctions, too, the JTR could seek improvement by strengthening its policies, further augmenting transparency and accountability. However, the aim of this study was to evaluate comparative, rather than outright, robustness, and by this measure the EU and its lobbying regulations prove decidedly strong.
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 European Commission, Commission and European launch Joint Transparency Register.
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Kanol, Direnc. “Should the European Commission Enact a Mandatory Lobby Register?” Journal of Contemporary European Research 8, no. 4 (2012): 519-529. Accessed December 8, 2014. http://www.jcer.net/index.php/jcer/article/view/460/371.
Köppl, Peter and Julia Wippersberg. “The State of Public Affairs in Austria.” Journal of Public Affairs 14, no. 1 (2014): 31-43. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/pa.1503.
Mulcahy, Suzanne. Lobbying in Europe: Hidden Influence, Privileged Access. Berlin: Transparency International, 2015. Accessed December 7, 2016. http://www.transparencyinternational.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Lobbying_web.pdf
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UKLR. "About the Register." UK Lobbying Register. Accessed December 10, 2016. http://www.lobbying-register.uk/about-.html.
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