By Laurence Peter
Lobby groups spend huge sums to influence EU laws
The European Commission has defended its new voluntary register of lobbyists amid criticism from groups who say it is not transparent enough.
A day after its launch, the register had 42 lobbyists listed.
"The idea is that people adhere to principles and commit to increased transparency," said a spokeswoman for Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas.
An estimated 15,000 lobbyists seek to influence EU legislation. Critics want more regulation of their activities.
But the spokeswoman, Valerie Rampi, said lobbying in the EU was "radically different" from the United States, where there is a mandatory register of lobbyists, setting out funding for specific issues.
Ms Rampi told BBC News that the European Commission "gives subsidies, but it's not like a government giving contracts - there is no business money financing politics".
She said the number of groups registering on the commission's website had doubled in 24 hours, "and that's a good start".
Joint EU list planned
The European Parliament has called for a mandatory register of lobbyists covering not only the parliament itself, but also the Commission and the Council of Ministers, which together approve legislation.
The three legislative branches are setting up a joint working group to establish a common register, which the parliament hopes will be in place by the next European elections, in a year's time.
"We want a one-stop shop. Lobbyists will have to register only once and it will be de facto mandatory," Ms Rampi said.
She said MEPs were demanding that lobbyists obtain access badges to enter the parliament's premises - and that would oblige them to register on the joint list.
The commission's register sets out different financial disclosure requirements, depending on the nature of the lobby group.
Consultancy firms and law firms lobbying on behalf of others are expected to state their turnover related to lobbying of all EU institutions, based on their latest annual accounts.
But "in-house" lobbyists - including companies, professional associations and trade unions - can simply provide an estimate of the cost of their lobbying, which does not have to satisfy accountancy rules.
Non-governmental organisations and think-tanks have to publish their total budget and main sources of funding.
Lavish lobbying effort
The first to sign up to the commission's register was Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica. Its entry shows it spent 950,000 euros (£751,000; $1.5m) lobbying EU institutions in 2007.
Another early entry was that for Foratom, a nuclear industry association, which spent 1.6m euros on its EU lobbying last year.
The Greens-European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament was prominent among those calling for more transparency.
Greens spokesman Chris Coakley criticised the commission's failure to make the list mandatory, saying even those who did sign up "are aware there is no great scrutiny of their activities".
"There is no register of individual names - and that plays into the 'revolving doors' problem. You can't follow people who go from high-ranking public positions into lobbying, and conflicts of interest go unnoticed," he told BBC News.
He criticised the fact that industry groups "can just give a good faith estimate" of their spending on lobbying.
He said such a register ought to state clearly how much is spent on a particular issue, instead of presenting the data in different ways.
The Greens' criticisms were echoed by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency. It represents more than 160 groups, trade unions, academics and others pushing for greater disclosure by lobbyists.
The commission's register "is more of a token gesture for transparency than an actual step forward," said the alliance's Erik Wesselius.
According to Ms Rampi, organisations that enter the register gain by getting automatic alerts about upcoming consultations with the commission. Whoever wants to make a contribution to such consultations is now asked to register on the list, she added. That gives their contribution collective - rather than merely individual - status, she explained.