There are 15,000 active lobbyists in Brussels according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These 15 000 lobbyists are divided between 3 000 different groups that are all stationed in Brussels. They work every day to try to influence the commissioners and lawmakers of the European Union, by trying to sway them into making decisions that would benefit their organizations. In anticipation of the first ever EU anticorruption report, which is expected to be published in November this year, one may start to question the influence of these groups and the EU’s approach to them. Can the lobbyists be considered representative of the people, thereby protecting public interests, where citizens are given a chance to communicate with the lawmakers directly? Or do they pose a potential threat to democracy? How fine is the line between lobbying and corruption?
In October 2012 the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli resigned after allegations of an attempt to unduly influence EU policy making. OLAF, the antifraud office of the EU, found that a Maltese entrepreneur had sought financial gain from the tobacco company Swedish Match, in exchange for using his contacts with the commissioner to influence a future legislative proposal, which would benefit Swedish Match. Although the Maltese entrepreneur wasn’t lobbying for Swedish Match it does highlight how private interest enters the arena of public policy making. There is currently no mandatory joint register of EU lobbyists that covers the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers, and therefore there is no transparency into how influential lobbyists are within the EU. Transparency is a fundamental requirement for identifying a political problem, and thus forming tools to deal with an issue, such as the influence of lobbyists, whose business sometimes crosses the line into the field of corruption.
A comparison can be made with the United States where the lobbyists’ activities are regulated under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The act authorizes a mandatory registration system and requires that registered lobbyists and organizations file financial activity reports. Nevertheless, Washington lobbyists spend vast sums of money: $3.5bn was spent on lobbying in 2010 alone.
One area in which American lobbyists wield considerable influence is in the gun control debate, in which the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) plays an important role. One example of their impact was during the aftermath of the Newtown shooting in December 2012, when the Obama-administration tried to push through a gun control bill to expand background checks on those looking to buy a gun. Although the bill was initially given enough support to carry it through the opening vote of the Senate, it was later blocked when it failed to get the votes needed to reach an agreement. President Obama exclaimed in a speech “The American people are trying to figure out, how can something have 90 percent support and yet not happen?” The answer to this question was stated by the New York Times as not only due to the unwillingness of both democrats and republicans to cooperate, but also as a result of lobbying.
Although we still await the EU anticorruption report to conclusively show whether the EU policy making system is being affected by lobbying, the number of lobbyists combined with the lack of a mandatory registering system is alarming. It is important to question whether the abovementioned kind of lobbying is acceptable in a democracy. And even if lobbying can be considered a way for citizens to make their voices heard, we have to ask who those voices belong to and what their impact is? Also, does lobbying entail that influence in the EU determined by the thickness of your wallet? Whatever the answer to these questions, the importance of transparency and integrity in the EU cannot be stressed enough. For citizens to fully take part in and be aware of policy making in the EU it is essential to have transparent information on how decisions are made. Similarly, for journalists to accurately report on developments within the EU, transparent information is very important. Transparency is at the core of what makes democracy and should be safeguarded as that.