When lobbying is no longer lobbying

November 9th, 2016
by Vicky Cann

Will the Commission proposal for a new lobby register lead to less lobbying being declared, rather than more? This is a real possibility if the Commission gets its way. Here is why.

The Commission’s proposal for a new lobby register is based on a substantially weaker definition of lobbying which would be based on “interactions” with policy-makers and decision-makers, rather than "all activities ... carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formulation or implementation of policy and the decision-making processes of the EU institutions…" [emphasis added] which is the definition used in today’s register.

The change would imply that only direct contacts or “interactions” with commissioners, MEPs and meetings will count as lobbying: letters and emails; phone calls; and face-to-face meetings.

If the weak definition is adopted, a lot of lobbying expenditure and activities seem set to disappear from the register. Lobbyists conducting research, media campaigns, or holding events etc which are aimed at influencing the policy-making decision, but which are not in the form of direct interactions with policy-makers, would not need to declare the costs of those activities or the staff members who work on them.

And for lobby consultancies and law firms, the change could be even more dramatic. Lobby firms earn their dough by advising on lobbying and their clients pay for information on the who, why, how, when and where which make up a lobby strategy. Lobby firms do sometimes hold “interactions” or meetings with officials and others on behalf of clients, but much of their revenue is likely to be for strategy planning and advice. And a major concern of transparency campaigners is that, under the new definition, a lot of lobby consultancies’ main activities will no longer require declaring via the register.

A look at the lobby register demonstrates this. A list of the 20 biggest-spending lobby firms in Brussels according to LobbyFacts (removing the multiple entrants who appear to have over-declared their costs and / or wrongly categorised themselves as lobby firms) reveals that since December 2014 (when the Commission first started to publish lists of meetings held by commissioners, their cabinet members and directors-general with lobbyists) the biggest Brussels lobby industry players have held only 203 meetings in total between them. That averages out to 8.8 meetings per month across a total of 20 lobby firms. Eight of the top 20 spending lobby firms had had six or less meetings across these 23 months. As a comparison, Google had had 117 meetings in the same period, BusinessEurope, 132; and OXFAM, 46. Transparency International's IntegrityWatch reports that consultancies (a category which includes lobby firms and law firms) has held only six per cent (720) of the 12,478 meetings with the Commission elite since December 2014.

As just one example of a lobby firm’s activities, Fleishman-Hillard had 15 meetings with top Commission officials in the 23 months since December 2014. Yet it declares €6,250,000+ annual lobby costs, 26.5 full-time lobbyists and has 48 accredited lobbyists with the Parliament. It seems highly unlikely that the full workload of these lobbyists is taken up by direct interactions with the Commission and Parliament.

Direct meetings, at least with the elite of the Commission, does not constitute a major activity for lobby firms on behalf of their clients.

Top 20 spending lobby firms

Lobby organisation Lobby costs EP passes FTE lobbyists High-level Commission meetings since 1/12/2014
Fleishman-Hillard 6250000 - 6499999 48 26.5 15
Burson-Marsteller 5000000 - 5249999 29 35 4
Interel European Affairs 4750000 - 4999999 19 25.5 5
Hill & Knowlton International Belgium 3750000 - 3999999 11 15.75 3
Kreab 3750000 - 3999999 28 30 23
cabinet DN consulting sprl 3750000 - 3999999 21 30 16
G Plus Ltd 2750000 - 2999999 23 19 21
APCO Worldwide 2500000 - 2749000 26 6.75 6
Avisa Partners 2500000 - 2749000 5 10.5 19
Grayling 2500000 - 2749000 13 21.5 4
Weber Shandwick 2250000 - 2499999 16 15 8
Brunswick Group LLP 1750000 - 1999999 21 12.25 4
Edelman Public Relations Worldwide 1750000 - 1999999 10 10.75 9
FTI Consulting Belgium 1750000 - 1999999 34 35 18
Hume Brophy 1750000 - 1999999 15 18 10
ARCTURUS GROUP 1250000 - 1499999 15 15 9
FIPRA International Limited 1250000 - 1499999 29 27.25 15
Rohde Public Policy 1250000 - 1499999 12 9.5 1
Cambre Associates 1000000 - 1249999 17 15.5 6
Community Public Affairs 1000000 - 1249999 11 8.75 7
TOTALS 52,750,000 as a minimum     203

Of course, it is plausible that if a corporation secures a meeting with the top brass at the Commission, it would be more likely to send in its own people, rather than its paid-for-lobbyists, to represent it. But maybe for the lower-levels of the Commission, paid-for lobbyists might be more prolific in attending lobby meetings on behalf of clients? The Commission does not pro-actively publish these meetings so it is impossible to tell with any great certainty.

But ALTER-EU’s analysis of a list of 456 lobby meetings held by lower-level officials in DG FISMA between December 2014 and July 2015 shows that only 40 or so of the 456 meetings in total (less than 10 per cent) were attended by lobby firms, with Afore Consulting in the lead with 10 meetings. Fleishman-Hillard was listed only twice. A further list of 640 lobby meetings held by DG Trade on TTIP between April 2013 and December 2015 does includes only one (Cambre Associates who held two meetings) of the top 20 lobby consultancies previously mentioned.

These snapshots provide further evidence that the main activity of lobby firms is not directly representing their clients to the Commission: lobby firms earn their bread and butter in other ways, and mostly in ways which are behind-the-scenes.

The same is true for law firms who provide lobbying services. The 20 top-spending law firms according to LobbyFacts have held 40 meetings with the Commission elite since December 2014 which is an average of two per law firm over 23 months. The DG FISMA list showed that one law firm had had two meetings with that department in the time period studied, but no others. As with lobby firms, directly representing clients at lobby meetings is not the main source of revenue for law firms providing lobbying services. And when it is already hard to get lobbying law firms to sign up to the register (see ALTER-EU report of May 2016), a narrowing of the definition in this way will exacerbate rather than solve this problem.

Top 20 spending law firms

Lobby organisation Lobby costs EP passes FTE lobbyists

High-level Commission meetings since 1/12/2014

Covington & Burling LLP 1,500,000 - 1,749,000 € 8 7.75 7
SALESAS TRES CENTRO DE ESTUDIOS 600,000 - 699,999 € 6 4.25 12
Squire Patton Boggs LLP 400,000 - 499,999 € 2 6 2
A TURQUOISE 200,000 - 299,999 € 0 0.75 1
Van Goethem Law 200,000 - 299,999 € 0 8.25 1
Arthur's Legal B.V. 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 2 0
Bates Wells & Braithwaite London LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 0.5 0
FIDAL 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 1.5 6
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 4 2 1
Latham & Watkins LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 0.75 0
Mayer Brown Europe-Brussels LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 0.75 2
McDermott Will & Emery Belgium LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 0.5 1
Norton Rose Fulbright LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 4 4 0
Steptoe & Johnson LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 1.25 1
Wiggin LLP 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 0.5 1
everis Energía y MedioAmbiente S.L.U 100,000 - 199,999 € 0 1.75 1
A. Silvestro 50,000 - 99,999 € 0 0.25 0
Alber & Geiger 50,000 - 99,999 € 6 6.25 3
Alinea, Avocats associés AARPI 50,000 - 99,999 € 1 2.75 1
COPPET 50,000 - 99,999 € 0 5 0
TOTALS 4,200,000 at least     40

Do lobby firms and law firms meet more with MEPs than Commission officials? MEPs do not systematically record and publish their lobby meetings, but the UK Conservative group of 19 MEPs does publish such a list. A look at the six month period January-June 2016 reveals that collectively those 19 Tories had no more than 40 meetings with lobby firms and law firms in six months, out of over 800 lobby meetings recorded in total. Fleishman-Hillard, as one example, had only three of these meetings. That is an average of two meetings per MEP over six months, again not a startlingly large figure considering that this a political group which meets regularly with corporate interests. While many lobby consultancies have tens of accredited lobbyists with the European Parliament (implying that they do visit the building and presumably have meetings with MEPs), our snapshot analysis shows that it is unlikely that lobby firms and law firms are receiving substantial lobby revenue to represent clients at meetings; these clients are paying for other services instead.

Right now, the top 20 lobby firms declare between them a minimum of €52,750,000 annually in the register as lobby costs. For the top 20 law firms it is €4,200,000 in total. How much of that will disappear from the register if the Commission gets its way and lobby firms and law firms only need to declare the revenue they receive precisely for interacting with officials and MEPs? Our guess would be almost all of it.

All data from LobbyFacts, accurate as of 8 November 2016

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