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EU ethics reform… what ethics reform?

EU reform / OP-ED
Georg Riekeles

Date: 25/05/2023
Out of the mountain came a mouse, as the French saying goes. Last December, a full chamber and a united Brussels applauded European Parliament President Roberta Metsola’s solemn warning and call to action as the news of the Qatargate scandal broke: “Make no mistake, European democracy is under attack”.

Six months later, as institutional inertia and parliamentary privileges weigh in, the sense of gravity and collective resolve have all but disappeared. Members of the European Parliament show little enthusiasm for reform of the rules that today allow them significant outside paid activities, and the European Commission’s proposals for an independent EU ethics body are widely expected to fall short of initial ambitions.

Perhaps it was always going to come to this. The suitcases full of cash and the spectacular downfall of European politics starlet Eva Kaili provided all the spy fiction ingredients to grab front page headlines. Focusing on the ABCs of transparency and ethics is much more tedious than pointing fingers at foreign interference.

EU’s Lobby Register: A sanctuary for dodgy data

Of the many necessary reforms, the most elementary is perhaps also the most neglected: the EU needs a functioning transparency register. Most think the EU already has a serious, effective and “reliable tool to help achieve even stronger and more open European democracy”, as a snappy European Parliament promotion video suggests. The EU does not.

The EU Transparency Register provides a rather complete, searchable database of 12,000+ organisations, which in past years declared a combined annual lobby budget of 1,8 billion euros. Yet troves of self-declared, unchecked lobbying data only take the EU’s claim to democratic transparency and accountability so far.

In fact, the more useful tool is the website LobbyFacts, set up by civil society organisations Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobby Control, which allows for easy search and comparisons of the EU’s biggest lobbying spenders based on the register’s data.

This is where the interesting figures come out. Who would have thought that Europe’s most aggressive lobbyists are to be found not only in Big Tech and consultancies, but also include apparently innocent minnows such as the Danish Consumer Council, Sveriges Bussföretag (literally ‘Sweden's Bus Company’) and the Norwegian Childhood Cancer Society?

Let the numbers tell the story: in 2021, the Danish Consumer Council had 19,75 full-time equivalent lobbyists and ran a 4-million-euro budget. Sveriges Bussföretag spent just under 6,5 million euros with 7,25 lobbyists, whereas the Norwegian Childhood Cancer Society spent close to 4,5 million euros for a mere 0,2 lobbyists.

Compare this with Big Tech’s numero uno: Google’s transparency disclosures suggest that it ran a surprisingly modest operation in 2021, with only 6,45 full-time equivalent lobbyists and a budget right below the 6,5 million mark. It’s also a remarkably efficient operation: Google has held a total of 326 high-level meetings with the Commission: contrast that with the three Scandinavian organisations, which combined, despite their high staff count, only have obtained one such meeting.

This is what has been called the EU Transparency Register’s “dodgy data”-problem by Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl. In September last year, they filed a letter of complaint to the European Parliament, Council and Commission calling for a clean-up of implausible data, suggesting that much of it stemmed from wrong categorisation and overreporting by smaller registrants.

Google vs EU transparency

Today, the significant problem, I believe, lies not with excessive Scandinavian transparency and zeal, but at the other end: what Google (and many others) are hiding from view. That same year, Google reported 6,45 full-time equivalent lobbyists, but had 20+ staff in their offices with LinkedIn-profiles suggesting their job is precisely to… lobby. If they don’t actually do so, I can’t help but wonder what they do the rest of the time, play foosball?

That’s perhaps relatively innocent. The full scale of Big Tech’s underhand lobbying operations is not. As the EU debated the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) last year, front groups, astroturfing campaigns and other forms of hidden lobbying were swarming.

Meta ran press and advertising campaigns, probably in the tens of millions of euros, targeting Europe’s policymaking community on social media in Brussels and national capitals, which were never accounted for in the EU Transparency Register – presumably because it was “advertising”, not lobbying.

Google’s operation to influence Europe’s policymaking community ranges from sponsorship deals with academics and think tanks to entertaining a large network of affiliates, partners and sock puppets across Europe. Here too, one is permitted to doubt, by simply adding up the numbers, that all is disclosed in the EU’s Transparency Register.

Within its 6.5 million euros reported lobbying budget, Google would have to fit not only the remuneration of their 20+ lobbying staff, related offices expenses and travel, hospitality, policy conferences they regularly host, and consultancy outlays up to 2 million euros (according to LobbyFacts’ calculations).

On top of that comes the sponsoring of close to 60 Brussels-based organisations listed in the register, such as Allied for Startups, AmCham EU, Brussels Privacy Hub at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Center for Data Innovation, Computer & Communications Industry Associations, Developers Alliance, Digital Europe, DOT Europe, Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe (IAB), SME Connect, Think Young and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies to cite just a few.

Add also a number of organisations across Europe, such as Danish Entrepreneurs, the Portugal Tech League or the Slovak Alliance for Innovation Economy, whose Google-financing and EU activities remain conspicuously absent from Google’s transparency filings.

The numbers simply don’t add up, and one is left with the suspicion that what it amounts to is something closer to systematic fraud than sincere willingness to abide by the EU’s code of conduct and basic principles of ethics and interest representation.

“We are Europeans, we would rather be cold than bought.”

The sad truth is that the EU’s Transparency Register has become the fig leaf that covers much of Brussels’ hush-hush lobbying. What’s particularly aggrieving is that some of this influence-peddling even takes place and is legitimised at the heart of our institutions.

Politico recently revealed how EU40, the platform for young Members of the European Parliament, is in reality a “you sponsor me, I give you access to this or that MEP”-scheme. The aforementioned Google-sponsored SME Connect, which has spearheaded campaigns against EU tech regulation, is run by former MEPs and has 24 sitting MEPs active on its board (one of whom was Eva Kaili until her recent impediments).

A mere year from the next European elections, one is left wondering when the EU’s leading politicians and institutions will wake up. Already months before Qatargate, three MEPs, including the lead rapporteur of the DSA, wrote a public letter asking President Metsola to take action against the developing practices of fraud and influence-peddling that undermine the trust in our institutions.

Eighteen years after the EU’s first European Transparency Initiative, it is time for proper reform. Europe’s biggest lobbyists (either by overall turnover or lobbying budget) should be held to full disclosure, project-by-project, euro-by-euro, of the sponsorship and lobbying activities they engage in. And rather than today’s hapless secretariat that is little more than a mailbox, the EU’s Transparency Register should be given both proper investigative and sanctioning powers.

The institutions have a primary law responsibility “to maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations” (Art 11 TEU). Both the Independent Ethics Body and revamped EU Transparency Register could be established by an interinstitutional agreement (Art 295 TFEU) or, as a creative solution, be lodged with the EU Ombudsman, which has a broad Treaty mandate to fight maladministration in all EU institutions, as well as own-initiative investigative powers in full independence (Art 228 TFEU).

What is now required is political will. EU leaders still have time to do the right thing ahead of the next European elections. Need we remind them of what President Metsola, who has staked her mandate on cleaning up the EU’s lobbying mess, said in her December speech: “Europeans would rather be cold than bought.

This op-ed was first published by the EUObserver.

Georg E. Riekeles is Associate Director and Head of the Europe’s Political Economy programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
European Union, 2022

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