The European Commission is holding a public consultation to evaluate the Transparency Register that supplies information on EU lobbyists and the policy process. As a professor and trainer in lobbying and a somewhat active analyst, I thought it might be worth sharing my humble opinion. As this is about transparency, I feel it should not only be for the benefit of a few civil servants. Feel free to consider my points below (none of which are at all controversial) – I welcome dialogue on these points: either here or with your own contributions in the consultation (open to everyone until the beginning of June).
I made essentially four comments:
- Clarify how and when academics and scientists are lobbyists
- Either abandon conflict of interest limitations or recognise and sanction NGOs for also having conflicts of interest (conflicts of influence)
- Provide a section on the register where organisations upload their internal ethical codes of conduct
- Create a place on the register for journalists in order to identify who actually is a journalist and who is an activist with a press card
Define lobbying for certain fields like the academe
I have no problems with creating a mandatory Transparency Register for all EU institutions – it would also save in time and avoid overlap for lobbyists to have a central resource. But you will need to clarify some definitions of who is a lobbyist. We saw that in the first round when think tanks and law firms did not consider themselves as lobbyists. What about academics? In my case, I lecture in universities and conduct training courses (sometimes in EU institutions) – that is not lobbying, but what about when I speak at EU oriented events – is that lobbying? Clear definitions are needed so I can know if and what I need to register.
Other academics are clearly lobbying but think they are protected by their university titles. For example, the IUCN Taskforce for Systemic Pesticides launched a clear lobbying attack to ban neonicotinoids, received funding from anti-pesticide groups organised by the Triodos bank which had declared nothing in the Transparency Register and refused to follow the transparency guidelines. Others like Andreas Kortenkamp and his Brunel University receive money from NGOs and foundations to produce data on certain chemicals for endocrine disruption lobbying activities; Dave Goulson takes money from NGOs to produce data for anti-neonicotinoid campaigns – none of these people or their institutions are in the Transparency Register, but they are clearly lobbyists receiving money to influence the debate and coming to the European Parliament or Commission to “share their expertise” without declaring their funding.
Action point: Define clearly what types of activities are considered as required to open a dossier in the Transparency Register, including what types of activities academics and scientists do that fall under the category of lobbying and advocacy.
NGO corporate models and conflicts of influence
The basis of a conflict of interest needs to be broadened. As it is now, the general interpretation is that if a person or organisation stands to profit from the results of their involvement in a decision-making process, this entity has a conflict of interest. Profit is translated as financial gain so most NGOs don’t feel that their engagements with their organisations entails a conflict of interest (they are non-profits).
But NGOs sell their access and influence to foundations, trusts and large funders. The more they can enter into a debate and spread their influence, the easier it is to raise funds. Some like Greenpeace have a corporate expansion model – to grow the organisation by 10-15% per year via fundraising (which now consumes a third of the NGO’s budget). But when NGO’s enter into debates or have their experts on panels or working groups, they generate market value among donors and this added influence can be valued in the hundreds of millions of euros. This is similar to companies with financial profit motives, but the NGOs do not believe they have a conflict of interest when they bring their positions and biases to a privileged position. If industry experts and scientists are to be excluded from participating in panels, working groups, committees and platforms, under the same measures, so too should the NGOs who are not impartial and have attached a value to the influence they can exert.
Ideally, it should be agreed upon that all actors involved in public debates have interests that they try to express and all should be allowed to participate (many NGOs receive public money so that they can participate), and I wish the European Union would be more mature about this. Note that it is only the NGOs that holler and moan about industry being involved and work to restrict dialogue and true stakeholder engagement. They even formed an organisation called ALTER-EU with over 200 civil society members trying to stop industry from engaging in public dialogue. It is in their interest, and helps them to gain influence by excluding stakeholders they disagree with.
Action point: Either allow all actors to fully engage in the process (regardless of conflicts of interest) or define a conflict of influence that the civil society organisations benefit from and apply the same exclusionary procedures to NGO members from EU working groups, panels, advisory boards, committees … as that applied to individuals with ties to industry.
Broaden the Transparency Register to include internal ethical codes of conduct
While the Transparency Register has a code of conduct for how all members of organisations registered must conduct themselves when dealing with EU officials and transparency procedures, there should be a place available on the registry where organisations will be expected to upload their own ethical codes of conduct. All organisations doing business within the European Union should have clearly stated principles that guide how their members must at all times act, and if they are easily available on the registry, they can be held to account should their behaviour be non-compliant.
What is important to note here is that many organisations not only do not have ethical codes of conduct, they actually encourage law-breaking and ethically outrageous activity. Certain NGOs and lobby groups calling for restrictions on conventional agriculture or chemicals openly and knowingly convey alarmist half-truths, use children in their lobbying practices, break EU laws and openly attack and criticise competitors or alternative. If they fail to comply with basic European ethical norms, which they themselves must declare in the registry, alerts should be made and sanctions applied.
Action point: Provide a section in the Transparency Register for organisations to upload their internal ethical codes of conduct and consider a dossier as incomplete if they fail to comply.
Broaden the Transparency Register to include journalists
As the journalism profession continues to suffer under the evolution in the news media market restructuring, many journalists have become vulnerable to influence and financial enticements. At the same time, given the grey areas around what constitutes a news source or organisation, certain campaigners are calling themselves journalists or documentarists when they are in essence running lobbying campaigns.
For example, in 2013, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) offered to pay freelance journalists to be involved with them in preparing reports on corporate lobbying and conflicts of interest. CEO does not publicly declare how many journalists they have bought and paid for. They have hundreds of thousands of euros available each year to engage anti-industry researchers who pose as journalists or documentarists but are merely extensions of CEO’s lobbying strategy. This network is regularly involved in EU debates, interviewing EU officials and MEPs and there is no way to know if they are legitimate journalists or disguised lobbyists.
Action point – create a section in the transparency registry for journalists where they are expected to list all of their financial sources and activities. Have any EU press accreditation dependent on their registration.