How influential are lobbyists?

IMG_0470The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom organized a debate on the influence of lobbyism on European politics that attracted a lot of attention. The topic has been hotly debated in the past few month, especially due to some lobbying scandals and controversial law-making processes, in which lobbyism by corporations has been described as being especially strong. The lobbying scandal which led to the resignation of Commissioner Dalli, coupled with the intense lobbying that is part of the negotiations for a new data protection regulation and tobacco law have sparked the debate about the influence of lobbyists anew.

In Brussels, there are about 15,000 lobbyists who try to influence European decision-makers in their favor. Over 6000 of them are currently registered in the renewed European Transparency Register, which was launched two years ago.

Dr. Wolf-Dieter Zumpfort, Vice-President of the Board of Directors of our Foundation, draw from his more than 25 years of experience as a lobbyist in Bonn, Berlin and Brussels to reflect upon the impact of lobbyism on the decision-making process. In his view, the impact of lobbying, especially the negative impact, is often overvalued. According to Dr. Zumpfort, “lobbyists actually make laws better”! That is, because it creates a competition of convictions and the constructive debate to find the right path. At the same time this leads to a stronger and better quality of the overall decision-making process. Indeed, European institutions’ interaction with citizen’s associations, NGOs, businesses, trade and professional organizations, trade unions, think tanks, etc. is constant, legitimate and necessary for the quality of democracy, for their capacity to deliver adequate policies, matching needs and reality.IMG_0533

However, all panelists agreed, that there is a need for transparency of the decision-making process. Citizens have a right to expect this process to be transparent and to take place in compliance with the law as well as in due respect of ethical principles, avoiding undue pressure, illegitimate or privileged access to information or to decision-makers. The lobbyists on the panel, Pascal Kerneis, Managing Director of the European Services Forum, and Stefan Borst, General Delegate of the Board of Management of Lanxess AG, agreed on the need to have clear rules, codes of conducts and a transparency register for all organisations trying to influence politicians and EU officials. However, they insisted that not only corporate lobbyism should be subject to these rules – NGOs, think tanks, trade unions and other organisations trying to influence the decision-making process have to comply with them as well.

Christian Linder, Member of the Cabinet of Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, agreed with the other panelists that “it is normal to have interest representation in an open society” and that as long as this influence-taking is lawful it is not a problem. He underlined the fact that transparency is in the interest of the lobbyists and the voluntary approach adopted with regard to the registration in the Transparency Register has been working.

IMG_0481Dr. Zumpfort and the panellists agreed that transparency is not only important with regard to the influence of corporate and non-corporate lobbyism. Transparency of the decision-making process has to be enhanced by all stakeholders, including the EU institutions. Comitology – the process by which EU law is modified or adjusted within “comitology committees” chaired by the European Commission – was criticised due to its intransparency. Furthermore, lobbying always involves at least two: the lobbyist and the lobbied, i.e. policymakers and officials. Public debate should therefore always treat lobbying as an aspect of “good governance”, and should shed light on the topic of transparency and integrity for all participants, or for both sides.

You can read Dr. Zumpfort’s “10 hypotheses concerning to the current lobbyism debate” here.

Julie Cantalou