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Europe

European Parliament Moves to Curb Power of Lobbyists

The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of tightening rules regulating the 15,000 lobbyists that gravitate around the EU institutions.

A handshake in front of the European Union flag

The handshakes which seal the deals around Brussels will soon have to be documented

By an overwhelming majority, EU lawmakers adopted a report recommending a mandatory public register for lobbyists that seek to influence decisions at the European Union's institutions.

The decision on Thursday ratifies the proposal made by the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee on Tuesday, April 1, in favor of the compulsory register for the lobbyists working to influence EU policies via the EU assembly, states and the bloc's executive European Commission.

The report, drafted by Finnish conservative MEP Alexander Stubb before he became Finland's foreign minister, also calls for a code of conduct and sanctions for those who flaunt it.

Critics say the lobbyists have held far too much sway in the drafting of EU laws and measures concerning everything from blacklisting bad chemicals to deciding how to set carbon dioxide emission caps. The EU assembly and member-states adopt laws that directly affect the daily lives of 490 million people.

The outcome of those laws can have a major impact on companies doing business in the 27-nation bloc.

Register aims to end era of impunity

Many feel that the lobbyists have worked with impunity in the European capital, without having to provide any information on the dealings, financial status or partners in business and politics.

The new register aims to change this. Under the new rules, professional lobbyists would have to disclose in the register the importance of their major clients and the costs associated with lobbying, while NGOs and think-tanks would be required to state their overall budgets and main funding sources.

Two shadows stretch over the ground behind the EU symbol

The register aims to shed light into lobbying's dark corners

"[The committee's] report represents a decisive step for a new culture of transparency in Brussels," said German Jo Leinen, the constitutional affairs committee's chairman. "In the future, strict rules will apply to lobbying."

Siim Kallas Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Administrative Affairs, added that lobbyists had a role to play in Brussels but they had to open up to regulated scrutiny.

“Pressure groups are legitimate and they also bring a lot of swing in the decision-making process,” he said. “But these things must be clear. And, therefore, the European transparency initiative wants to bring light to this often dark chamber.”

Kallas added that the register would "give all lobbies the opportunity to demonstrate their strong commitment to the cause of transparency and the full legitimacy of their profession."

European capital inundated by lobbyists

Belgian tricolor and European Union flags are seen on at the side entrance of the Berlaymont Commission building in Brussels

Brussels comes second only to Washington in lobbying

Brussels is notorious for its lobbying community which makes it one of the most saturated political capitals on the planet.

"After Washington, Brussels is the worlds' largest lobbyists' city," said Erik Wesselius of the Corporate Europe Observatory. The Amsterdam-based Non-Governmental Organization observes the economic and political power of lobbyists.

The organization estimates that the lobbyists spend up to 1 billion euros [$1.5 billion] a year to influence decision-makers in Brussels. But even Wesselius doesn't know how many representations there actually are in the city.

Estimates put the number of lobbyists in Brussels at 15,000 while there are an estimated 2,500 lobby organizations working there, with some 5,000 lobbyists operating in the parliament alone.

Lobbyists ready to ignore voluntary register

Wesselius believes the few of these individuals and organizations will be happy with the regulations pertaining to disclosure. "Many lobbyists have already indicated they will not register because they would have to reveal their clients and their income," he said.

British liberal European parliamentarian Diana Wallis told Reuters that she also had doubts. "I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of a voluntary registration system but it is a first step and, in any case, there will be review of the register after a year," she said.

Unlike the European Commission and the European Council of member governments, only the European Parliament currently has a voluntary register of lobbyists and a code of lobbying conduct, which has been in place for the past 10 years.

However, the commission is setting one up to be in place in June.

The new measures are hoped to be in place in time for European Parliament elections in June 2009.

Once these new rules are implemented, we will have a real culture of transparency in Brussels," said German Socialist EU lawmaker Jo Leinen.

Critics accuse plan of not going far enough

A protest against that corporate lobbying by big business at the EU.

Critics complain of corporate lobbying at the EU

However, Green lawmakers and an anti-lobby lobby lamented that the measures were not even stronger, saying that they had been watered down with a loophole for lawyers.

"Lawyers are exempted from the scope of rules, which, given all available evidence is absurd," said Italian Green Monica Frassoni. "Lawyers play an increasingly important role in influencing policy in Brussels and they promote themselves as such on their own websites."

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation also said the loophole for lawyers was the work of conservative lawmaker Klaus-Heiner Lehne, who himself is a partner at law firm Taylor Wessing, specialized in EU law.

"This outcome shows the need for the parliament to clean up its own house and introduce strong rules to prevent conflicts of interest," said Paul de Clerck with environmentalist campaigners Friends of the Earth Europe.

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