A friendly reader points out this story about moves to tighten regulation of Brussels lobbying, as moves continue apace to make EU agricultural funding more transparent. Both initiatives should be welcomed by all sides – after all, both pro- and anti-EU propaganda rarely has clear origins, and the Common Agricultural Policy is so shrouded in secrecy it’s very hard to tell just how rubbish it actually is (although in case you’re wondering, the answer is “VERY”).
In launching his initiative to make lobbyists disclose their financial backers, the Anti-Fraud Commissioner, Siim Kallas, has made the entirely sensible point that “the issue of integrity should not be limited to public institutions”. However, typically, certain critics seem to take the view that nothing’s good enough, and want Brussels to run before it’s got the hang of walking.
EU lobbying organisation the Society of European Affairs Practitioners (SEAP) currently has its own, very vague and entirely voluntary Code of Conduct, which effectively states that anything’s fine as long as you don’t get caught (“Signatories will voluntarily resign should they transgress the code” – emphasis mine – there is no procedure to sack dodgy lobbyists who deliberately mislead or corrupt).
Advice on lobbying techniques in the EU also makes clear how suspect is the current system, in which all lobbyists are desperate to get to people in the European Commission, who are perceived to have more influence than anyone at the European Parliament:
“Taking into account that the EP is a rather open and accessible Institution, it is important to realise that the EC is a less accessible house, full of specialists and national experts who crowd hundreds of committees. One of the challenges for EU Affairs specialists is to get access to the right documents on time. Also, in the beginning one will hardly get the chance to speak to senior staff but with junior officers or civil servants. EU Affairs specialists therefore should try to build up long lasting relationships with senior experts that are of relevant importance to their case.”
The equivalent situation if this was going on in the UK would be if lobbyists were hanging around Whitehall sucking up to minor civil servants, hoping that by being nice to a junior researcher at the Home Office they might eventually get to an Under-Secretary, and thus subtly influence departmental policy via the typical machinations of the Sir Humphreys of this world.
A tad dodgy, I’m sure we can all agree – although also entirely understandable, as it is, after all, the lobbyists’ job to gain access and influence. In the absence of any regulations, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t try to win over Commission workers. Except, of course, that the current system breeds conflicts of interests, greatly increases the possibilities for corruption, and threatens the distortion of EU policies to benefit individual companies and organisations at the expence of EU taxpayers. It is very easy to make someone feel obliged to help you out even without bunking them a brown envelope stuffed with cash – a drink here, a work-reducing briefing paper there. This is precisely why civil servants are meant to be free from lobbying influences, and why UK Members of Parliament are forced to declare all their extra-parliamentary activities and incomes on the Register of Members’ Interests.
This move would be a good step towards cleaning up the Commission, and is yet another acknowledgement that the current system is not up to scratch. However, because there is so much work to do, any initiatives on behalf of the Commission are met with – mostly justified but often unfair – accusations of hypocrisy.
In an absolutely typical move, the suggestions that regulation of lobbyists to cut down on fraud should be implemented has been met with hefty implications that the Commission has double-standards. After all, the Commission is well-known for being corrupt, nepotistic and unaccountable – what right does it have to tell the lobbyists to clean up their act? SEAP head Rogier Chorus has said as much already:
“Chorus is… sceptical at the suggestion that lobbyists should disclose their client’s identity and the amounts of money they are being paid to perform their task. ‘I wouldn’t accept that at this stage,’ he commented, adding that the Commission should ‘do its homework’ and clean its own house first by making officials ‘less vulnerable to bribes’.”
What this, of course, fails to acknowledge is that civil servants – which is what the vast, vast majority of Commission workers actually are – should not be getting approached by lobbyists in the first place, as their sole purpose should be impartially to implement Commission and EU policy (please note – Commission workers, not Commissioners). Ban lobbyists from approaching them, they are instantly less vulnerable to bribes – be these literal or psychological.
It is, of course, very easy to take cheap shots at the Commission – and many of them are utterly deserved – but this on-going attitude that seems to suggest that the institution has no right to tell anyone what to do until it gets its own house in order is merely childish. Yes, the Commission is not directly elected; yes, it has a record of corruption. This does not mean that it is incapable of spotting and tackling corruption and lack of accountability elsewhere.
If, as should eventually happen, the Commission ends up in its rightful place as the EU’s civil service, and the semi-executive power which is currently in the hands of the Commissioners is separated from those who actually implement EU-wide policy (in other words, so that the Commissioners end up more like Ministers, rather than the combination of Minister and Permanent Secretary that they currently are), it will be in part due to measures like this aimed at de-politicising Commission workers.
To resort to tired cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Sorting out the Commission’s problems will take a long time, but it is small steps like this which can put it on the right road.