Three questions on lobby regulation in Belgium

It is a common and classic question in each democracy: are our politicians agents who are obliged to follow the will of their constituencies or rather delegates who are elected to assess the constantly changing circumstances and take decisions based upon their own opinions?

The question was raised for the first time when the war hero and plebeian tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 b.C., fought for a redistribution of Roman land in favor of the poor. Backed by the patricians and wealthy Italians, Marcus Octavius, the other tribune, used his veto power in the Popular Assembly. As a result, Gracchus had Octavius deposed arguing that he had acted contrary to the wishes of his constituents. After further manipulation behind the scenes, conflicting interests eventually led to the classical Concordia between the stakeholders of Roman society blowing up. Following provocations in the Senate, Gracchus was clubbed to death with a chair leg by a group of thugs during his re-election at the Capitol. The republic would never recover from the rupture between the people and the governing privileged class.

Today, in western democracies, companies, unions and an ecosystem of civil society organisations, trade unions and others are putting their political wishes on the table. The need to find a balance fitting everyone’s interests hasn’t changed. The political canvas gets crumpled from time to time in the search for a good solution. Just as in Gracchus’ time, words such as ‘clientelism’ and ‘buying favour’ are repeatedly used. Even though the media today is more informed than ever, the public regularly flags the need to regulate lobbyists. The success of this depends largely on the way three core issues are tackled.

Firstly, the scope of the application needs to be defined, which requires a clear definition of lobbying and lobbyists. This is not an easy task, academics studying the subject have, for decades, surrounded it with a merry chaos. Is the organization of an event or a media campaign about saving energy categorized as lobbying? Are activists, unions or lawyers lobbyists? And what about Mayors?

The second question concerns the components of a regulation. It is necessary to take decisions about the scope (only members of parliament or also cabinet staff and public servants from a particular policy level?) and to what extent information about lobby targets, customers, policymakers contacted and financing is collected and made available. Furthermore, codes of conduct need to be defined as well as a system of compliance.

Initiative is the third core issue and the most interesting one. The government, as well as lobbyists, can decide to propose regulation. The result should be fair, increase transparency and stimulate integrity. Cases across Europe point out that the result of regulation usually takes the shape of a voluntary or mandatory register that is managed online or by the government, in combination with codes of conduct which require compliance by the sector. In the Netherlands for example, there is an outstanding professional association, BVPA, that has been active since 2002, while the lobby debate in the Second Chamber is stalled. In this context the NRC Handelsblad spoke about ‘a doomed attempt to regulate the unregulatable’. In France two organisations, AFCL and ARPP, exist, while the Sapin II is yet to be finished. In Germany, the introduction of a lobby register in June, didn’t receive a majority in the Bundestag. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Politikberatung however has established detailed quality control and an excellent code of conduct. Other European democracies such as Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Spain are still struggling with the regulation of public affairs. In addition, the European Commission has recently concluded a consultation round in order to adjust its own precarious transparency register. Meanwhile, Anglo-Saxon countries such as the US with their advocacy through the Political Action Committees (PACs), show long-standing and substantially regulated lobby practices.

In our country there is nothing on the radar, except for an unbalanced law proposal related to defence contracts that has been in existence since March 2015. The question if and how advocacy in general should be regulated, remains unanswered. In an era of transparency, this is remarkable. On August 30th and 31st the recently founded Belgian Public Affairs Community (BEPACT), hosted a summer school for its members. The event created an ideal opportunity to make a clear statement, without the need to use chair legs.

Published in De Tijd, 30/08/16


Karel Joos

Partner, Belgium

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