Veiled in secrecy: lobbying in Europe

Veiled in secrecy: lobbying in Europe

In politics, it’s often the one with connections or the heavier wallet who has the most influence. From excessive political campaign finance to bribes, private interest can sway the decision-making process. While lobbying can be essential for a functioning democracy, what happens when it’s done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny?

Opaque lobbying practices backed up by extensive funds at the disposal of interest groups can lead to undue, unfair influence in policies – not only creating risks for political corruption but also undermining public trust in decision-making institutions and processes.

Transparency International’s 2012 report Money, Politics, Power: Corruption Risks in Europe showed that 19 out of 25 European countries assessed do not have legislation in place to regulate lobbying.  And 40 per cent of these countries do not require parliamentarians to disclose their interests.  Ahead of the upcoming EU Parliament election – with 751 seats at stake – and several national elections set to take place this year, these figures are especially problematic as there is no guarantee of public sector integrity – both nationally and regionally in the EU.  

Lifting the Lid on Lobbying

Following on the heels of this report, we’ve launched a new project – Lifting the Lid on Lobbying – to dig deeper and investigate the legal gaps and the lack of transparency in lobbying practices in 17 European countries and the EU in Brussels, with national and regional research reports to be released alongside calls for lobby regulation reforms.

On 3-5 March 2014, Transparency International representatives from countries throughout Europe and our EU-Brussels office met in Berlin, Germany to officially kick off the project. Looking into the lobbying issues of transparency, integrity and equal access, our chapters also engaged in dialogue with a selection of invited external stakeholders from the private and public sectors, civil society, and watchdog organisations.

From a public debate and demonstration outside of parliament calling for a lobby register in Norway to the drafting of a common declaration for more transparent lobbying practices signed by seven corporate members in France, our chapters exchanged stories about their on-going work advocating for transparent and fair lobbying practices.

While the EU and a handful of countries represented in this project already have measures in place to regulate lobbying, regulations are not always sufficient or adequately implemented, as shown by the recently released EU Anti-Corruption Report.  In other countries, legislation to regulate lobbying is completely absent, such as in the Czech Republic, where our chapter warns of high-profile businessmen, so-called “Godfathers”, who use money and influence to meddle in political affairs.

Buying-out Politicians

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Public confidence in how policies are being formulated, and in whose interest, continues to be negatively affected by repeated incidences of opaque lobbying practices. In Brussels, the corridors of Parliament are frequented by some 30,000 lobbyists and yet only one-fifth are officially registered as such. This discrepancy is also reflected in voter apathy as public trust diminishes – in 2009, only 43 per cent of voters turned out for the Parliament election.

Public trust has diminished at the national level as well. Our Global Corruption Barometer 2013 showed that 60 per cent of respondents in the UK believe the government to be captured by private interest, while over 80 per cent of respondents in both Cyprus and Greece believe their governments to be unduly influenced. In light of the on-going financial crisis in Europe, this trend and the likelihood of undue influence stemming from financial-sector lobbying practices is particularly worrisome.

For lobbying to be a legitimate and positive force, transparency as well as equal access of all interest groups to policy-makers is critical. Lobbying not only affects all legislation drafted and passed – it also affects every part of society. To restore credibility and public confidence, governments and the EU must ensure that lobbying processes are fair and transparent.

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