EU auditors say lobbyists can easily slip under bloc’s radar

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 5:08 PM

By Nette Noestlinger

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Lobbyists can easily bypass EU transparency rules to influence policy, the 27-nation bloc’s auditors said on Wednesday.

The European Court of Auditors’ (ECA) report comes as European Union institutions discuss a new Ethics Body to guide the conduct of officials and ahead of a planned review of the bloc’s transparency register of lobbyists.

That review follows a 2022 cash-for-influence scandal at the heart of the European Parliament in which Qatar and Morocco have been accused of bribing decision-makers.

Qatar has denied wrongdoing. Morocco has complained of “judicial harassment” after a probe by Belgian prosecutors.

More recently, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said her pick for the EU’s new business envoy had decided not to take up the post, after critics alleged cronyism.

Any accusations of wrongdoing risk damaging the EU’s reputation ahead of European Parliament elections in June.

ECA warned the transparency register risked becoming “a paper tiger” unless it was significantly bolstered.

“A range of lobbying interactions with EU lawmakers can be hidden from the public eye,” said Jorg Kristijan Petrovic, who lead the audit, which identified major loopholes.

These include requirements to register meetings between lobbyists and high-ranking staff only and solely for pre-scheduled appointments. The report also said that funding for more than one in three NGOs was unclear.

Currently, a formal record is not required for spontaneous meetings, unscheduled phone calls and email exchanges, said ECA.

New EU ethics rules are expected to set standards regarding acceptance of gifts, hospitality or travel, meeting lobbyists, financial interests, and on conditions for activities after terms have ended.

While roughly 12,500 organisations are listed in the EU register, watchdog Lobbycontrol estimates up to 29,000 lobbyists are active in Brussels where bloc-wide policies are honed.

Lobbycontrol campaigner Max Bank said Big Tech has stepped up its lobbying considerably in recent years, spending 113 million euros ($120 million) in 2023, with the five largest companies alone spending 33 million euros in the EU hub.

“No one is naive anymore after Qatar, money can buy your influence,” said Paul Tang, a Dutch socialist member of the 705-strong European Parliament.

($1 = 0.9414 euros)

(Reporting by Nette Nöstlinger; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Alexander Smith)