Interests groups may get new code of conduct

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The European Parliament will debate a new code of conduct in an effort to reduce interest groups' influence on lawmakers.

8 May 2008

BRUSSELS - The European Parliament will debate a new code of conduct for interest groups Thursday in an effort to stamp out unethical lobbying and reduce their influence on lawmakers.

The EU assembly, often accused of giving in to lobby groups, will call for a mandatory register of industry representatives trying to influence EU legislation, German Social Democratic member Jo Leinen said on Wednesday.

Critics say the estimated 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels hold too much sway in drafting EU laws on issues ranging from blacklisting bad chemicals and setting carbon dioxide emission caps to making rules for service providers.

The parliament will also debate sanctions against lobbyists caught behaving unethically - for example, making copies of classified proposals. While some lawmakers have proposed a blacklist, others argue that withdrawing accreditation to the parliament's building and making names public would be enough.

But even when lobbyists or interest groups are banned from the house, nothing can stop them from meeting parliamentarians elsewhere or entering the buildings as guests, so critics doubt the effectiveness of the sanctions.

Under the parliament's proposals, the register would be valid for all EU institutions, including the European Commission, which drafts laws, and the Council of EU Ministers, which represents EU governments in Brussels.

But Ingo Friedrich, member of Germany's conservative CSU party who is responsible for steering the code of conduct through the assembly, acknowledges this might be a tall order.

"It is possible the Council of EU Ministers will not be interested in this at all. They might say lobbying on government level must be regulated in a different way," he told reporters.

The parliament will back plans to force a full financial disclosure by lobbyists and consultants, including their turnover, costs associated with EU lobbying and, in the case of non-governmental organizations, their budgets and main sources of funding.

One issue that still needs to be decided is whether churches and expert groups should be considered as lobbyists.

The parliament will call for a working group including representatives of all three EU institutions to work out the details of a common register and code of conduct so that they can be implemented this year or early 2009.

"The system should be up and running by the end of the year. It'll take a while before all the lobbyists can be registered," Leinen said.

The European Commission has proposed to set up a voluntary register for lobbyists in which they state whom they work for and how much clients pay them to put their views to officials in the 27-nation EU. It said it would do so this year.

Catherine Stewart, a senior official with Interel Cabinet Stewart European Affairs, a leading European affairs consultancy in Brussels, said she backed the idea of a register in general.

"We have to see what the terms and conditions are, but in principal I have no problem with it," she said.

Brussels has become a growing hub for public affairs consultancies that work for individual companies and industry groups, corporate lobbyists, non-governmental organizations, charities and think-tanks, rivalling those in Washington.

Critics say crucial legislation is engineered by lobbyists - who can be seen roaming freely around the EU institutions despite strict entry requirements.

British lawmaker Eluned Morgan, who is leading discussion in the parliament on a proposal to break up energy giants and force them to sell off distribution networks to boost competition, acknowledged Wednesday that lawmakers have been "lobbied fairly furiously on this in the past few months".

[AP / Expatica]

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