The push for stricter transparency rules in EU lobbying is a step in the right direction following the “damaging” Qatargate scandal, but policymakers should also keep a close eye on NGOs’ funding by foundations or other associations, whose donors are rarely disclosed, said Paul Varakas the chief of the EU lobbyists association.
Varakas, the president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), said although most Brussels-based NGOs are in the EU transparency register, more attention should be emphasised on where their funding comes from.
“If you’re a commercial entity, whether doing lobbying as an in-house activity or through a trade association, it’s pretty clear that your money comes from your profit […] there is no surprise that the trade association for cars is being funded by the sales of the car manufacturers,” he said.
But the transparency problem arises with associations and NGOs with multi-layer funding.
“There are NGOs which declare that their funding comes from foundations from within or outside Europe, but the donors behind these foundations are not often disclosed,” Varakas said.
“We need to have a full understanding of who is the ultimate funder of your activities in Brussels,” he noted, adding that some NGOs often push for a specific topic which linked to commercial interests.
Similar issues occured with some consultancies during the last decade. The discussion over more transparency in EU lobbying heated up after the Qatargate scandal, in which the “Fight Impunity” NGO played a key role. The NGO was owned by former Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and was not in the EU transparency register.
Referring to the new rules by the EU Parliament currently under discussion, Varakas said EU lobbyists abiding by the rules “should not be penalised” for the illegal behaviour of some entities and EU lawmakers.
“Trust must be restored quickly, and the new rules must be agreed in a transparent manner”, he said, adding that it’s not a good sign the fact no public debate is taking place but instead, everything is currently only discussed at closed-door meetings.
Varakas said, according to the information leaked so far, there are some good elements such as MEPs meeting only entities which are part of the transparency register.
He noted that a step in the right direction is also the fact that former MEPs – who may work in the private sector after their parliamentary mandate – will not have automatic access to the EU Parliament premises to meet their former colleagues unless they declare the precise reasons why these meetings are to be held as well as the fact that they are former EU lawmakers. But Varakas warned that the new proposals should not put everything in the same box, by making rules stricter for fair EU lobbying.
“In the proposal, for example, there is some sort of obligation to explain the reason why you are entering the EU Parliament premises. While it’s a good idea from a transparency perspective, the massive loopholes and collateral damage that you will see is that less and less lobbyists will conduct affairs within the Parliament premises,” he said.
“Instead, they will meet MEPS outside the Parliament, where you won’t have to justify why you hold such meetings. We must find the right balance by pushing for more transparency, but that if you’re a lobbyist on the transparency register and you go through plenty of transparency requirements, you should be free to conduct your affairs within the Parliament”, he concluded.