This report examines the practice of lobbying and the attempts to regulate it in 19 European countries and within the three core EU institutions.2 It comes at a time when public trust in government is at an all-time low and the practice of lobbying is widely associated with secrecy and unfair advantage. It also comes at a moment when an increasing number of governments in Europe are promising to tackle the problem of undue influence in politics, and the need for good government is particularly pressing given the range of economic, social and political challenges currently faced by European countries and EU institutions.
Lobbying is an integral part of a healthy democracy, closely related to universal values such as freedom of speech and the right to petition of government. It allows for various interest groups to present their views on public decisions that may come to affect them. It also has the potential to enhance the quality of decision-making by providing channels for the input of expertise on increasingly technical issues to legislators and decisionmakers. According to a 2013 survey of 600 European parliamentarians and officials, 89 per cent agreed that, “ethical and transparent lobbying helps policy development”.
Despite this, multiple scandals throughout Europe demonstrate that without clear and enforceable rules, a select number of voices with better resourcing and contacts can come to dominate political decision-making. At the very least, this can skew individual decisions, and at the worst, it can lead to wide-scale institutional and state capture. At present, unfair and opaque lobbying practices constitute one of the key corruption risks facing Europe, and six out of 10 European citizens consider their government to be seriously influenced or entirely co-opted by a few vested interests.
This report compiles the results of national level studies examining how lobbying manifests itself across Europe and the quality of responses by both governments and the EU institutions to the risks and realities of undue influence in public decision-making. It is the first time that such a holistic and comparable assessment has been carried out.
A particular focus of the report is on reviewing the three critical and inter-related elements of effective lobbying regulation: firstly, whether interactions between lobbyists and public officials are made transparent and open to public scrutiny (transparency); secondly, whether there are clear and enforceable rules on ethical conduct for both lobbyists and public officials (integrity); and thirdly, how open is public decision-making to a plurality of voices representative of a wide range of interests (equality of access). Any serious effort to combat undue influence in politics must recognise that transparency measures must be accompanied by broader measures to strengthen public integrity and promote opportunities for access by a wide range of citizens to the political system.
The overall results of the research give cause for concern and suggest that attempts to date to promote open and ethical lobbying standards by both governments and lobbyists have been piecemeal and ineffective. Much of the influence remains hidden and informal; there are serious conflicts of interest at play; and certain groups enjoy privileged access to decision-makers. The risks of undue influence remain high and, on occasion, this has resulted in drastic and far-reaching consequences for the economy, the environment, social cohesion, public safety, and human rights. Greater efforts by both the public sector and all those seeking to influence public decisions are urgently required to address the issue.