At last, a debate about lobbying in Belgium

ByJoris Bulteel

At last, a debate about lobbying in Belgium

A lobby register for large-scale military purchases?

On 7 December, a hearing on lobbying took place in the Defence Commission. That was not by chance, because during this parliamentary term decisions are taken on some major military purchases. In Belgium, such large-scale procurement dossiers immediately call up a number of demons from the past – just think of the Agusta scandal or the so-called ‘Obussencontract’.

Specifically, the hearing was about a bill from the Groen and Ecolo environmental parties proposing to establish a transparency register. This public, online register would have to contain full details of contacts between decision-makers and lobbyists on major military purchases. Which policy-maker has contacts with which lobbyists; where, when, how and for how long they communicate with one another; what is discussed and what documentation is exchanged … In other words, a fair amount of detail.

As a lobbyist, I welcome this legislative initiative. Not because I agree entirely with the exact terms of this bill. But because it has another, important merit: for the first time, there seems to be room in Belgium for a suitably nuanced debate about lobbying.

Lobbying, essential for political decision-making

Those submitting the bill acknowledge the usefulness of lobbying. They admit that it is usual for decision-makers to seek advice and consult experts. “The more information is gathered, the better considered the decision will be.” And that is precisely what lobbying is about: it is a form of communication, whereby information is provided for policy-makers. No more, no less. Lobbyists act as the diplomats of the company or organisation they represent.

Of course, lobbying aims to defend specific interests. But for each lobby, there is a counter-lobby. Arguments for and against. It gives the policy-makers a full picture. So lobbying contributes towards the decision-making process. In times of ever greater complexity, this input has become essential. Lobbying does not impair the independence of the politician, who acquires the necessary understanding on the basis of all the information acquired, forms an opinion, tests ideas, builds support and is able to take a well-founded decision. So most politicians welcome this input.

Towards high-quality, ethically responsible lobbying

The Groen and Ecolo bill focuses on far-reaching registration. The aim is noble: maximum transparency. Registering lobbyists, as is the case at European level, can be a good thing. Taking the Dutch example, the idea of a ‘lobbying paragraph’ in law can even encourage policy-makers to consult on a sufficiently broad and balanced basis. However, the idea of detailed reports on the content of each conversation or contact raises questions. After all, diplomatic contacts or political negotiations are not held in public. Two risks emerge. Firstly: companies and other organisations may rein back on sharing expertise or ideas, which detracts from the quality of the policy. A second risk is that communication between policy-makers and stakeholders is driven down into an underground circuit. In both cases, the transparency register would result not in more, but in less transparency.

On the other hand, the bill does not go far enough, because it says nothing about deontology and it is limited to defence. And that is more than worth discussing. Lobbyists and politicians benefit from high-quality, ethically responsible lobbying. Lobbyists must abide by the basic rules of the profession, such as being transparent about the interests they represent, guaranteeing that the information they provide is accurate and demonstrating unconditional professionalism. Because yes, lobbying is a profession.

Joris Bulteel

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