BP's lobbying of the UK government over a prisoner deal with Libya is under investigation by the US Senate. But while the oil giant had to disclose its lobbying efforts in the US, it didn't have to in the EU or the UK.
US Senators want to examine possible links between the release of the Lockerbie bomber and BP
A hearing on the issue was originally scheduled for July 29, but that has been postponed. One of the senators involved, Robert Menendez, said BP and British officials had stonewalled the investigation and some key witnesses had refused to appear.
The US Senate foreign relations committee, which wants to find out whether BP's lobbying British officials played a role in the early release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi last year, is unlikely to garner any useful information coming from the European Union's official lobbying register.
While BP's lobbying practices in the US are logged into a mandatory register that is publicly available and updated regularly, no comparable database exists in the EU or in Britain.
Two years ago, the EU launched a voluntary lobbying register that companies and interest groups can join if they want to. So far however, most lobbyists have chosen not be logged into the public register.
Low registration rate, outdated information
"We did a survey about a month ago when the register had been in place for two years and our conclusion is that less than half of all the lobbying organisations that are estimated to be active in Brussels are on the register," Erik Wesselius of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a coalition of some 160 organisations campaigning for effective lobbying rules in Europe, told Deutsche Welle. "So that's less than 50 percent after two years, that's not a particularly good performance."
What's more, even the limited information that is available in the Brussels register is not particularly helpful.
"The information is much less precise than in the US register and in many cases the information in the EU register is quite outdated," said Wesselius.
BP is one of the firms that actually chose to join the Brussels lobbying register. But the company's file in the EU database serves as a good example of the limited usefulness of the information available there.
According to the register, the BP file was last updated in November 2009. The last financial information given dates back to 2008 when, according to the public file, BP spent between 400,000 and 450,000 euros ($522,000 - $588,000) lobbying EU institutions. Details about which institutions were lobbied are not available.
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The expenditure estimate given by BP is very low, said Wesselius, considering that BP spent $15 million last year on lobbying the US federal government. "We have been doubting whether this is the right figure," he added.
No registry required
In Britain, where BP is based, there is no publicly available lobbying register at all.
However, after a slew of recent lobbying scandals, there is some momentum toward lobbying transparency in the UK. The country's three main lobbying umbrella organisations have created the so-called UK Public Affairs Council which is supposed to maintain a register. But currently the UKPAC's Common Register on the organization's website is not publicly accessible.
In a move that would even go beyond attempts of self-regulation of the industry, the new British government has vowed to establish a mandatory register. But so far no timetable has been set.
In the EU, there are also efforts to create a more reliable lobbying register. Currently, no one even knows how many lobbyists are active in Brussels. "Nobody can say for sure," said Wesselius. "We have an estimate of 15,000 to 20,000, but it's very hard to say."
US register a model for the EU
As a model for an improved EU lobbying register Wesselius points to the US. There, lobbyists are not only required to register, but they must also update their information on a quarterly basis. And all of this information is publicly available.
"We can tell you how much money overall is being spent and we can tell you what issues and what bills are being lobbied on by a company like BP," Dave Levinthal, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics which maintains the database opensecrets.org, told Deutsche Welle.
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"For example if you look at 2009 there was a piece of legislation in the US Senate called the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2009," said Levinthal. "BP lobbied on that bill. It also lobbied on the Clean Water Restoration Act, Senate bill 787."
In the EU or the UK, such detailed information on BP's or any other company's lobbying efforts is simply not available. Compared to the US, lobbyists in Europe face very little regulation. "So far they have been able to do to their thing quite unencumbered," said Wesselius.
Despite efforts to improve the EU's lobbying register, chances for a quick success are slim, noted Wesselius. "Basically what we need in the EU is a big scandal," he says, adding that in the US lobbying laws were always tightened after huge public scandals.
For the US Senators investigating the lobbying of the British government by BP in the Lockerbie case that means they will have to get their information elsewhere. In Brussels and Britain there is simply no public record of BP's dealings with UK officials.
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge