The EU’s ‘transparency register’ is a voluntary register of the companies and individuals involved in lobbying the EU’s institutions, the interests being pursued by each party, and the level of resources being invested in these activities. Michiel van Hulten writes that while several important financial institutions have recently signed up to the register, the record of large international law firms is far less impressive, with relatively few currently participating.
According to reports over the last few days, a number of important financial institutions (including Banco Popular Español, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, the London Stock Exchange and Royal Bank of Scotland) have signed up to the EU’s lobbying transparency register during the last week. A check of the (voluntary) register reveals that Banco Santander did so one week earlier. Doubtless there are other financial institutions which could be added to this list. That is all very good news. These are not the first financial institutions to sign up (banks such as BNP Paribas, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, ING and Lloyds preceded them, in some cases by several years), but they are among the most important.
Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, financial institutions have been increasingly active in Brussels. According to lobbyfacts.eu, which uses data from the transparency register, the Association for Financial Markets in Europe was the EU institutions’ top industry lobbying group in 2012-2013, declaring over €10 million in lobbying expenditure. There is nothing wrong with companies, trade associations, NGOs and others seeking to influence the EU decision-making process. Often this results in better legislation. But citizens have a right to know who they are, and how much they are spending.
The banks’ move is likely to have been prompted by the decision of the new European Commission to strengthen its internal rules on dealing with lobbyists. Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has also announced that he wants to make the voluntary register compulsory. As Paul de Clerck from Friends of the Earth Europe suggested in response to the Goldman Sachs registration, to be effective this should go hand in hand with stricter rules on financial reporting. But it’s an important step nonetheless.
Law firms and the EU’s transparency register
The banks’ move leaves one major category of companies out in the cold. These are the big international law firms with a lobbying presence in Brussels. A check of the register reveals that 88 law firms – mostly smaller ones – have signed up. These do not include firms such as Covington and Burling, which dedicates a full page on its website to “Legislative advocacy in the European Union”. It also doesn’t include Hogan Lovells, which declares on its website that: “Members of our team have also worked as lobbyists before, or counsel for, virtually every major world regulatory body.”
By my count, of this list of 75 Brussels-based law firms with an international or EU capability, just 6 (Alber and Geiger, DLA Piper, Fratini & Associates, Linklater, MENA Chambers and Taylor Wessing) have a transparency register entry. Of these, Linklater and Taylor Wessing both declare zero euros of lobbying expenditure. Linklater justifies this as follows: “The firm is providing legal advice to its clients. It is not involved in lobbying activities. The activities of Linklaters LLP are protected by confidentiality rules as may be the case in the different jurisdictions in which the firm is active.”
Yet on its own website, under the heading “Shaping the regulation debate”, Linklater writes: “Our team of contentious and non-contentious lawyers can act as key advisers on your most sensitive and reputation-threatening regulatory issues. Engaged by clients for our expertise and innovation in this field, we are helping to shape the debate and play a significant role in the future of regulation of financial institutions.”
The position of legal firms who refuse to clarify lobbying activities is simply not credible and, now that banks are finally signing up to transparency, also no longer tenable. It is time for all law firms involved in lobbying the European Union to come clean, and publish meaningful entries in the EU’s transparency register.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared at Michiel van Hulten’s website, Place Lux. The article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Michiel van Hulten – LSE, European Institute
Michiel van Hulten is a Brussels-based independent consultant specialising in projects in the field of democracy, transparency and accountability. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the LSE’s European Institute.