Lacks in EU lobby register cause low data quality

More than 8.000 lobbyists have so far signed up in the EU Transparency Register. While there is an upcoming proposal for a mandatory version, the current one still has faults.

By Chjanna Delaingzes and Niels Drost

Through the tranparency register lobbyists get acess cards to the European Parliament, which makes it possible for them to lobby inside the buildings. Foto: Niels Drost

Through the tranparency register lobbyists get acess cards to the European Parliament, which makes it possible for them to lobby inside the buildings. Foto: Niels Drost

An e-mail arrives. Organizations working with the interests of European farmers have asked a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for a meeting, because they want to show their concerns about a new law. The phone rings. The MEP receives an invitation for a breakfast event in the European Parliament this week, held by a corporation that has interests in the new proposa as welll.

Lobbyism is a part of everyday life in the European Union, because the EU-institutions depend heavily on external experts and knowledge from the people affected by the laws of the EU. Lobbyists such as corporations, NGO’s and trade unions working in Brussels can currently choose to register in a voluntary transparency register made to make the decision making process more clear for the public.

“The EU is very dependent on dialogue with lobby groups as it does not have the same relationship with the public that the national government enjoys. The public needs to have as much information out in the open as possible so that they have confidence in the dialogues within the EU,” says professor of European Public Policy, Justin Greenwood from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. The professor investigated the register and wrote a journal about the results in 2013.

Right now a proposal for a mandatory version of the register is being drafted by the European Commission. According to Martin Kröger, head of the Transparency Unit within the Commission that works with this, there will be a public consultation in the autumn. The actual negotiations with the other institutions in the EU will start early next year.

So far small changes have been made to move the initiative towards a more mandatory version. Organizations attending meetings in the high level groups in the Commission have to be registered and they also have to sign up to get access cards to parliament.

The proposal for a completely mandatory register has been neglected for some time, but last week the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has put pressure on the Commission by requesting an update on the proposal.

No systematic monitoring
The EU Transparency Register (TR) as it is right now has a challenge with the quality of the data in the system, because there is no systematic monitoring of the TR.

“There is a problem with uneven and missing data. These problems remain and one would hope over time that with better policing methods the quality of the data will go up,” says Greenwood.

An example of low data quality in the register, is when companies and other organizations that have registered a too high or too low estimated costs for their lobbying expenses.

Henrik Alf Jonas Hermansson, postdoctoral researcher at the department of Political Science of Copenhagen University, is currently researching if the Commission’s proposals change after consulting, among others, lobbyists. He sees some lacks in the system as well.

“The current register is pretty toothless, filled with gaps and poor data and have not had much of a noticeable impact on the way policy is made. A mandatory one, with stringent control and penalties, may be more effective,” says Hermansson.

The Joint Transparency Register Secretariat (JTRS) is in charge of monitoring the register and has the equivalent of 5 full-time employees working on this. They focus on removing entries made by organizations that are not actually influencing EU legislation.

Since there are approximately 8.000 entries, the data quality of the register in some extent depends on external watchdogs such as NGO’s like Transparency International and Corporate Europe Observatory that both lobby for transparency and therefore investigate the entries in the TR.

Aidan O’Sullivan, Head of Cabinet of the EU Ombudsman, highlights the problem. “The register is very under resourced, they only have a few people. Are the commission and parliament serious about enforcing this system? Are they making sure that the checks are made and that there is oversight enforcement?”

In the JTRS there is not have enough manpower or resources to evaluate every registration and check the content. Kröger, head of the Transparency Unit in the Commission, knows the data quality is an issue.

“The Commission is discussing it. It is important to keep in mind that the current register is not yet the mandatory we talk about. It is the legacy of something that was put in place a couple of years ago. The principle is that it is voluntary and there is no control of the data before it is published.”

Low data quality
The current register can be used to see how many people are working with lobbying and how much time they use on it. Currently 8.000 lobbyists have registered, which can give an impression of how many lobbyists there actually are in Brussels compared to an earlier estimate of an average of 15.000-33.000 lobbyists.

Over the summer, Transparency International filed 4253 complaints about faulty data in the entries. The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), who represent 50 of the biggest European companies, received a complaint about having registered a too low amount spend on lobbying expenses. They registered 9999 euros as expenses for annual wages and office rent prices.

“Either it is an error on our part, or an error made by the Commission or within the system. It is a mystery, since it is certainly not the right amount. The entry has been updated now and we have followed the guidelines in good faith,” says Brian Ager, General Secretary from the ERT.

The ERT currently estimates that they spend 800.000 to 1 million euro on lobbying activities. That covers wages for two people working full time, but it is unclear whether or not that covers expenses for offices of the ERT, which it should according to the guide of the register.

The costs of lobbying can give a hint towards how many resources the lobbyists use to influence policymaking and therefore also shows how big a player each organization is. The relationship between financial resources of lobbyists and the results of their lobby efforts isn’t as clear as you would think.

“There is a pretty well established link between the amount of expertise a lobby group has and its influence, and richer groups are able to gather more expertise. High financial resources also helps you to lobby often and on smaller issues that other groups don’t have the resources to care about, which makes success more likely,” says Hermansson

Some organizations have registered nothing or marginal information concerning the initiatives they follow in the EU. An example of that can be the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI), who registered that they “take position on all important social and employment policy initiatives. CESI is a recognized social partner” as the initiatives they follow.

“It would be ideal if we had the list of initiatives we work on in the register, but it is important to state that there is a shift in the initiatives. We might be working with labour mobility for only two months and we don’t update the entry every four weeks or so. That would be ideal, but as it is right now, we update it once a year as the Commission has requested,” says Hendrik Meerkamp, policy advisor at CESI.

Changes needed
If the upcoming proposal for a mandatory register will be put through, more thoroughly data quality checks could be needed.

“In a much smaller country like Canada, which has a mandatory register, they have 10 times the amount of officials. I think that should really be a wake up call for the EU parliament and commission. If they want this register to work they should employ 5 or 10 times more people”, says Olivier Hoedeman from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an NGO that lobbies for transparency.

Member of Parliament (MEP) Julia Reda, of the Greens/EFA group, believes that politicians should mention with which lobbyists they have spoken to in the legislation. “It shows whether the person who has drafted something has actually taken different perspectives into account. I think it is also really important information to see the strength of different lobby groups.”

Not everyone agrees with that. MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel, member of the European Conservatives and Reformists says, “I have nothing against publishing who meets me. But of all my discussions, only one third of them takes place in my office. I wouldn’t need the register, because if somebody needs something from me, I will ask him where he comes from, what he does and what he is trying to achieve. I can take that judgment by myself.”

Within the next couple of months it should become clear how the TR will develop. If one compares the EU system with the one in the US, it is necessary to keep in mind that the developments on the other side of the Atlantic started a longer time ago.

“The first scheme of the United States came around in 1935, so they have had a long time to get their act together. In Europe things have been happening for around 10 years now and gradually we have had more information being released into the public domain,” says Greenwood.