British government refuses to answer information requests on secret EU meetings with lobbyists

28th March 2016 / EU

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) has been investigating EU member state permanent representations, finding out to what extent they are a target of lobbying. This article takes certain extracts from that report to focus on Britain’s response to requests for information – the results should raise an eyebrow. This report also provides an insight into the secrecy of British government actions within the EU and casts doubt over government integrity, particularly when taking negotiations of TTIP into consideration where the EU Commission, met corporate lobby groups in 88 percent of 597 meetings.

The member state permanent representations, like the Council and the European Council, are not party to the EU lobby transparency rules. In fact, the Council has consistently emphasised that member states’ governments, including their permanent representations in Brussels, should not be covered by EU transparency regulations.

However, as the EU media outlet Politico, recently wrote, “Most lobbyists we speak to agree that permanent representations are a soft touch: All you need is the right policy officer and you can come into close contact with the policy formulation at its most influential stage. This is how you get policy input into the Council of Ministers and it’s considerably cheaper than having to deal with member states in capital cities.”

Lobbyists have the ear of the EU whilst citizens groups do not

Permanent representations – the primary link between member states and the EU institutions – provide a key avenue for member states to influence policy and legislation at the EU level and have long been suspected of being a target for corporate lobbyists keen to get their message across.

In 2015, ALTER-EU submitted access to information requests to 17 EU member state permanent representations, asking for a list of meetings held with lobbyists in the previous 12 months.

Only four governments (Ireland, Romania, the Netherlands, and Poland) were able to provide all or some information that related to the access to information request, despite the fact that all member states except Cyprus have national legislation governing the right of access to information.

The only two countries who completely refused access to information despite holding the information requested was Malta and Britain.

If the data provided by the Polish and Romanian permanent representatives is anything to go by, it seems clear that permanent representations are more likely to have lobby meetings with corporate organisations than any other kind of interest group, confirming the view that the corporate capture of EU decision-making is not confined to the European Commission. Our research found that:

63 per cent of the 104 lobby meetings held by the Polish and Romanian permanent representations were with corporate interests, whilst only 20 per cent were with civil society organisations.

The UK permanent representation initially rejected our request for a list of lobby meetings from the past year, saying that it would breach the cost limit for the public authority to collect the information. At the suggestion of the UK authority, ALTER-EU substantially reduced its request to ask for only a month’s worth of lobby meetings. Four months later, following three delays in answering the request, the UK replied to say that it would not release the information, using three different exemptions to argue that disclosure would:

  1. “be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and a candid exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation” (Section 36 of UK Freedom of Information Act);
  2. “be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states” (Section 37 of UK FOI Act);
  3. “breach the first data protection principle… that personal data should be processed fairly and lawfully” (Section 40 of UK FOI Act).

The UK stated in its reply that, “The EU is a complex organisation and one of the most lobbied in the world; UK Rep needs to be able to understand the perspective of those stakeholders, and indeed influence their views and activities, in order to inform and deliver UK objectives in Europe.” This context should favour the disclosure of the information, since access would permit the public to know whether the UKRep is meeting with a broad range of interests.

It is also interesting to note that whilst the UK used personal data protection as a reason to withhold information, the UK Information Commissioner’s guidance states that where an individual attends a meeting in the capacity of an employee, if the employee expresses the views of the organisation, those views, when recorded in the minutes of the meeting, will not be personal data about the employee.

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In our view, it would be fair and lawful to disclose this information because lobbyists are always expressing their organisations’ views – but our appeal on this matter was rejected.

As an example of UK government sponsored activity, in January 2014, The Guardian reported that the UK had defeated attempts in Brussels to set legally-binding environmental regulations for shale gas. Prime Minister David Cameron led the efforts but was supported by the UK’s Permanent Representative Ivan Rogers who wrote in November 2013 that “seeing off” the proposals for new laws would require “continued lobbying at official and ministerial level using the recently agreed core script”.

Ivan Rogers appears on Corporate Europe Observatory’s RevolvingDoorWatch project as he has enjoyed a previous career at financial giants Barclays Capital and Citigroup. Conveniently, another area of major importance to the UK government, permanent representation and corporate interests alike, is banking reform and regulation, including the Capital Markets Union.

A snapshot of lobby meetings held by the City of London Corporation (between May and July 2015) shows that at least four meetings were held with the UK permanent representation by its City Office in Brussels. It also met with the permanent representations from Italy, Sweden, Poland and Ireland. The City Office’s purpose is to promote the interests of international financial services by facilitating contacts between the City and member states’ representatives, amongst other targets.

Read the full report from Alter-EU National Representations in Brussels – Open for Corporate Lobbyists

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