Madrid-Brussels Express

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the first nation-wide lobbying registry in Spain and hailed it as a good step in the right direction. The National Commission for Markets and Competition (CNMC in Spanish) had put in place a voluntary register where organisations and interest groups which met with the national authority could sign up and adhere to an ethics code issued by the regulator.

Whilst 52 organisations had signed up in the first two weeks since the registry was created, a year later the count is over 350 members. The exact figure remains a mystery as the search engine is not particularly user-friendly and it is not easy to figure out the total amount. Also, the companies listed in the Spanish IBEX 35 – the majority of which are in regulated sectors and probably have a real interest in dealing with the competition authority- are strangely missing in action. The voluntary nature of the registry seems to defeat the purpose of the whole initiative.

Meanwhile, a general election, an investiture agreement and several scandals of corruption later, lobbying regulation is still on the political agenda. Last month Congress approved taking into consideration a proposal submitted by the Popular Party – the party in government- to set up a mandatory lobbies’ registry in Congress. Based on this proposal all interest groups looking to meet with MPs would have to sign up at a public registry which would be supervised by the Presidency of the Chamber. If the proposal gathers enough support – and so far it has, with most political parties voting in favour of the initiative – the registry could be up and running in less than a year.

Again, this initiative is praiseworthy but it cannot be enough. First, it leaves the Senate and the executive branch outside the registry’s scope. It is naïve to assume that a level playing field of transparency and equal access to representation of interests will be achieved merely by making accessible to the public a small portion of the total of meetings that take place at the political and institutional levels. According to Transparency International’s 2015 report on lobbying in Europe,[1] registries are useful if they are designed with comprehensive definitions, mandatory and coupled with meaningful oversight mechanisms. Spain’s proposed register would fall short of meeting this standard- as do the seven other EU countries and two European institutions analysed by Transparency International which already have a register in place.

But event if the register were to meet the three required criteria, it is insufficient. The report took into account three criteria to assess the level of ethical lobbying in European countries and institutions: transparency, integrity and equality of access. Registers would only meet the criteria of transparency; lobbying regulation in Spain would still need to incorporate measures to ensure integrity and equality of access.

A practical example to illustrate this: the former President of the region of Madrid was arrested a couple of weeks ago and is being investigated for alleged corruption and appropriation of public funds both to illegally finance his party and for his own personal enrichment. After stepping down from office a coupe of years ago, he set up a law-firm where he offered his services to help companies in the obtention of public sector contracts awarded by the regional authorities, in exchange for a 5% commission of the total amount of the contract. This is only the most recent case of corruption but it points to the painfully insufficient level of lobbying regulation; no existing legislation foresees revolving door mechanisms nor does it define what ethical lobbying rules are. As a collateral damage, this type of conduct also tarnishes the name of lobbyists and more often than not, contributes to a bad reputation where lobbying has become a dirty word. This former public authority would define himself as a lobbyist, a commission agent, a handyman of sorts when the truth is this was outright corruption and fraud.

Going back to Transparency International’s Report, the average score for the 19 countries was of 31% and only Slovenia passed the test with an average 51%; the other 18 countries and the three EU institutions’ efforts at regulating lobbying were deemed insufficient. However, this should not be an excuse for Spain; corruption and fraud rank second amongst the Spaniards’ main reasons for concern according to the latest national barometer, only after unemployment. Economic reforms have been top priority for the government in the last few years but with economic recovery well under way, the Administration and political class cannot be let off the hook. A renewal of the political system with a comprehensive lobbying regulation is mandatory.

 

[1] “LOBBYING IN EUROPE: HIDDEN INFLUENCE, PRIVILEGED ACCESS”; Transparency International, 2015. http://www.transparency.org/whatwedo/publication/lobbying_in_europe

 

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