To the annoyance of those who practice activity legally, the word lobby carries a huge burden of negativity in the eyes of public opinion. In the collective imagination, the term evokes dirty deals and dark negotiations, despite the fact that, in fact, it is a legitimate practice that is exercised every day and in broad daylight.
A lobbyist is anyone who tries to influence the political decision-making process. Brussels is taking more and more of them, which is why everyone is lobbying to one extent or another in the EU capital: Greenpeace when it thinks about the next directive on energy efficiency, the steel employers’ association when it calls for a strong industrial response to subsidies from the US or the Generalitat when it meets with the European Commission to ask for more voice for the regions in the distribution of EU funds.
But as much as industry professionals insist that Qatargate is a case of corruption and not a problem with lobbies, no one doubts that the scandal will leave a very difficult stain to erase for public affairs professionals, including the Oenagés, the alleged cover used by Antonio Panzeri for his scathing. .
Many fear that institutions, pressured to react to recent events, will fine-tune the response and end up paying for the broken dishes of organizations working in accordance with the law so that new obligations and limitations are imposed on them without fixing, instead, what all the sources consulted point to as the biggest problem: the lack of effective mechanisms to ensure compliance with existing rules, a situation that leads to what Transparency International calls institutions’ “culture of impunity”.
Alberto Alemanno, Professor of European Law at the HEC business school in Paris, corroborates that, as underlined from Brussels, the ethical framework of EU institutions is more demanding than national ones. “It is one of the most advanced in the world, undoubtedly better than that in Spain and in most European countries” in terms of transparency and conflicts of interest.
But its control, he regrets, is in the hands of political, not legal authorities, “a system that is not sustainable and must be urgently reformed.” The EP “has historically been the weak link of integrity in the EU”, as its members are allowed to have jobs parallel to their political activity and to hold meetings without declaring them. “This creates a grey area where you can see yourself in the face of conflicts of interest.”
Alemanno has been studying European subjects for 20 years, but it is he was left in stone when he learned of the macrobating and the arrest of a vice-president of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili. “While my own research showed how weak the integrity system of the European Parliament is, the nature and scale of the scandal makes it unique. Qatargate is quantitatively different from any previous scandal. We are facing a kind of Americanization of European politics; It’s what we see happening and maybe it’s been going on for a long time. I felt a little naïve when I saw the news.”
“We are facing an ‘Americanization’ of European politics, that is what is happening,” says Professor Alemanno.
The amounts of cash seized (around 1.5 million euros) are “shocking”, says Paul Varakas, president of SEAP, the so-called lobbying lobby, as they represent European public affairs professionals. “We thought this was a thing of the past,” he laments. The first thing he did when he heard the news was to go to the EU Transparency Register to check if the oenagé at the centre of the scandal, Fight Impunity, was registered. “Of course, I wasn’t, and that explains a lot of the problems in this case. It’s something that had to happen, because of the gaps in the Transparency Register and how parliament applies it.”
Unlike the Commission, where all meetings of commissioners, cabinet members and senior officials with representatives of interest groups are recorded, the MEPs only have to declare them if they touch on the legislative issues in which they work. This rule leaves a wide margin of appreciation for MPs and explains why almost half do not declare a appointment. And, while the Commission is forbidden to arrange meetings with representatives of lobbies not registered in the Register, in Parliament, protecting itself with the “freedom of mandate” of its deputies, there is no such condition.
The only obligation that was imposed, that only registered organizations can participate in their public hearings, did not even apply in the case of Qatargate: Fight Impunity submitted several reports to the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament. Parliamentary sources explain that the condition does not apply to all acts of the committee, only to hearings. “Someone didn’t do their job,” Varakas said.
For Raphaël Kergueno, specialist at Transparency International, the biggest problem is the lack of real controls. “No one actively verifies that the rules are being followed. No one can investigate, unless the president authorizes the ethics committee, which also consists of five deputies, rather than external supervisors. The system is very permissive and there are no penalties. Otherwise, that would have been avoided.”
The lobbying lobby, Varakas explains, agrees that those who break the rules should be sanctioned, both companies that give incorrect data on the money they spend on these activities (it has happened with Tesla, for example, without consequences) and organizations that lie about their sources of funding. “With people, sanctions are necessary to ensure certain conduct.” But what the scandal shows, he concludes, is that it is surveillance of politicians that needs to be strengthened. “Qatargate is a case of corruption, and corruption is a crime, not a norm of conduct problem,” he said. “It’s up to them to decide what needs to be done: take this seriously or risk having another scandal, perhaps before the European elections. It’s up to them.”
Jaume Duch, director general of Communication and spokesperson for the EP, considers it “essential” to take measures “that prevent a tiny minority from harming the good work of the vast majority of deputies and the image of the institution itself. As the president, Roberta Metsola, said, what has happened damages the credibility of the institution, and therefore weakens democratic Europe, because it makes possible very dangerous foreign interference.”
Metsola has announced a “broad reform” of the institution’s ethical controls, but in the decalogue of measures on which it works there is none related to the dispendiums of deputies, who recently extended the decision not to have to justify how they use the 4,300 euros they receive each month for office expenses. “Our group, the Greens, forces us to justify each euro, to carry out an audit and to return to the EP the money we do not use, but we are the exception”, laments Ernest Urtasun (En Comú Podem).
Duch: “We must act so that a tiny minority does not end up harming the good work of the majority”
There are more problematic terrains, legal practices but of questionable ethics, such as the acceptance of trips paid for by third parties. It is enough to declare them, as José Ramón Bauzá (Cs) did with his attendance at the World Aviation Convention held in Doha in 2020; Qatari authorities cost him apassage in business and two nights in a luxury hotel. The information was on its website, but only attracted attention in the wake of Qatargate, when statements in favour of the country were suspect. Bauzá was also president of the friendship group with Qatar, an unofficial forum that had just been dissolved.
In these situations, Alemanno recommends centralizing the application of EU ethical standards in a single external body “capable of monitoring, investigating and sanctioning”. The institutional response has disappointed him: “With a couple of tweaks, the lost confidence will not be restored. Blaming third countries, as President Metsola did, or the Oenagés, as the European People’s Party did, is not wanting to see the problem. This is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the national and European political parties, of no one else.”
Guest Post by Beatriz Navarro, Brussels. Correspondent for lavanguardia.