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EU Transparency Register: bridging the North Atlantic divide

Written by Marie Thiel and Elisabeth Bauer, with Piotr Pielucha

@ JEGAS RAS / Fotolia

The beginning of October marked an historical moment for the EU Transparency Register, with a symbolic ten-thousandth entry recorded on 5 October 2016. Due to the continuing high influx of new registrations, another significant moment came about, this time however on a much more global scale. The EU Transparency Register, with over 10 390 entries, broke through to the world’s top position in terms of the number of active lobbyists registered. Having left the Canadian Registry of Lobbyists behind (with 5 286 active lobbyists on 7 November 2016), the EU register has now stepped ahead of the US House of Representatives Lobbying Disclosure – the previous leader (with 9 700 registrants at end July 2016, according to Open Secrets). Both countries’ systems are qualified as highly regulated and have been up and running for more than two decades.

Overall, there are substantial dissimilarities between the North American lobbying regimes and the European Union model. In light of the recently triggered negotiations on a new interinstitutional agreement on a mandatory transparency register, proposed by the European Commission on 28 September 2016, which doubtlessly contributes to the popularity of the current system, it is worth making a comparison.

As political systems and societal perception of lobbying differ around the world, so do state approaches to regulating lobbying activities. How these look depends on the result that particular regulation is expected to bring about. In the case of both Canada and the USA, whose democratic acquis idealises free and open access to government for the sake of public interest, lobbying has long been a commonly accepted practice. Europeans, on the other hand, are still more likely to consider lobbying with suspicion.

At the end of the day, the usual reasoning behind imposing control on lobbying is to improve government accountability, as well as to prevent corruption. Looking at the EU Transparency Register’s soft approach in terms of the ‘sanctioning’ mechanism, as well as its voluntary character, accountability seems a bigger priority for the EU institutions, especially due to the decline in public trust.

The American and Canadian message, on the other hand, is short and to the point: Fancy lobbying? Register. Failed doing that, but still lobbying? Pay up. And don’t even think of attempting bribery, or you will end up in jail. This stance indeed appears to be a convincing corruption deterrent, without necessarily harming government credibility.

Measures applicable to lobbyists in case of non-compliance
European Union Canada United States of America
· Removal from the register

· Removal from the register and prohibition from re-registration for one or two years

· Name and shame

· Withdrawal of authorised access to Parliament premises

· Civil penalty up to CA$ 200 000

· Criminal penalty up to two years of imprisonment

· Both of the above

· Civil penalty up to US$ 200 000

· Criminal penalty up to five years of imprisonment

Although the North American legislators leave no doubt as to their determination to be efficient and obeyed, their products are not loophole free. For example, various exemptions in the definition of lobbying are considered to allow manipulated avoidance of registration and disclosure obligations. Even though these statistics clearly serve as a convincing benchmark, a recent phenomenon has hit the US register – ‘deregistration’ of lobbying activities – with a notable drop in registrants, accompanying the stricter rules applied since 2007.

In Europe, as mentioned above, the EU Transparency Register is voluntary for lobbyists, but the institutions covered (European Commission and the European Parliament) have introduced a number of incentives to encourage registrations. Following five years of Register operations, these incentives appear attractive enough to maintain the inflow of new entries at a high and sustainable level. So far, the record month was October 2016, amassing 347 registrations, more than double that of the corresponding period of the previous year, which saw 159 new organisations register.

Appearing on the EU Transparency Register is very often justified for reputational reasons. Some companies vaunt their registered status on their commercial websites. The register’s popularity clearly also owes a lot to its eye-catching and user-friendly website, whereas the Canadian and US register sites seem rather lifeless and over-complex for consultation by ordinary citizens in comparison.

Now that the EU Transparency Register leads the pack, the pace seems unlikely to slacken soon. With the recent announcement of the above-mentioned proposed interinstitutional agreement, this practical dimension of EU institutional transparency is a hot topic, contributing to the register’s popularity, reflected in the influx of new registrations (approximately 80 per week over the past two months – a 60% increase in comparison to the corresponding period in 2015).

Lobbying landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic vary, which means that different dynamics shaping how the registers look will apply. Since the proposal for a mandatory register under a new interinstitutional agreement is also meant to cover the Council of the EU, it is unlikely that registration popularity will decrease once a new framework is adopted. The European register can therefore be expected to continue to consolidate its leading position in the transparency race in the years to come.

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