Former vice president of the European Commission and the man who spearheaded the creation of the EU lobby register Siim Kallas finds that creating a similar register in Estonia is becoming increasingly sensible. As evidenced, according to Kallas and among other things, by a security briefing concerning Chinese tech giant Huawei for Isamaa MPs last week.
Among them was fellow party member Marko Pomerants who is not a member of the Riigikogu and represents the interests of Huawei through PR firm Powerhouse.
Kallas said that when he oversaw the creation of the EU register of lobbyists as vice president, he believed such a thing to be necessary only in major centers, like Brussels and Washington where lobbying has a different nature and idea than in smaller places.
“I believed that Estonia was small enough and didn’t have big enough problems with lobbying for such a register to be warranted. Today, I think it is something that could be had,” the honorary chairman of the opposition Reform Party said.
Kallas said he will not be taking a stance on whether Huawei is good or bad, but because the company is a major global player, it would be good to have an overview of its influence.
“I see nothing wrong with Powerhouse having publicly and clearly declared that they are protecting the interests of Huawei. Lobbying is a natural occurrence, but perhaps we should know more about what’s behind it,” he said.
Kallas admitted that creating a lobbying register is a lot of work.
“There is a great danger of getting bogged down in formal red tape without achieving the desired result,” the former Commission vice president said.
Despite the European lobby register being voluntary, it has over 12,000 entries.
“Everyone agrees it is needed; that is what we proceeded from. Having lobbying under control should be a shared interest.”
A lobbyist out of place in the parliament
Kallas said that it is not acceptable when a Riigikogu faction meeting that disseminates information designated for in-house use only is attended by a lobbyist.
He said that company representatives attending work meetings in the European Commission is unthinkable.
Commission employees can meet with lobbyists, and there is nothing wrong with it, but it cannot take place during work meetings.
“These are two very different things,” he said. “It is entirely acceptable when a lobbyist comes to the Riigikogu to meet with groups and everyone knows about it. Meetings with officials are acceptable as well. But attending work meetings, sitting in between MPs is very peculiar.”
The Riigikogu lacks specific guidelines for who can attend committee meetings. Committees are free to invite people.
Kallas said it must be public knowledge who attended sittings and in whose interests.
When lobbyists take part in the work of a parliamentary committee in vague formats, the question of who has affected decisions and how is raised.
The deputy speaker said while meetings with representatives of interest groups are natural, the committee must always be ready to tell the public who was summoned and heard from.
“When the committee explains its position, it needs to be clear the committee is free in its decision after listening to interest groups,” he said.
Suspicious situations in Brussels
Kallas recalled that questionable situations were also created in Brussels. For example, how a man from Deutsche Bahn always attended the European Parliament’s transport committee meetings.
It led to quite a conflict between the European Parliament and Deutsche Bahn.
Anyone who secures accreditation and access to European Parliament committees can attend public sittings.
“I believe that company representatives should not regularly attend parliamentary committee meetings,” Kallas said. “There should be a measure of peace guaranteed.”
Representatives can meet with members of committees in private and do. Spokespeople for interest groups meet with committees, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, they should be there only if they are invited.
“It seems unnatural to me that this man from Deutsche Bahn regularly attended transport committee meetings. He always greeted me very courteously, by the way,” Kallas said.
He recalled how there was a fierce debate in Brussels over whether lobbyists should reveal all their clients and the volume of their contracts. It was agreed that business lobbyists would reveal their biggest clients.
There were also interesting nuances involving nonprofits.
“I will not go into detail, but a certain NGO fighting for environmental issues was reluctant to reveal their budget and sources of funding. It turned out that a famous environmental organization was being funded by the John Merck Foundation. The pharmaceutical giant John Merck has a foundation? While this is not enough to suspect this foundation is somehow malicious, it is good to know,” Kallas explained.
The deputy speaker said that there are several topics in Estonia today regarding which it would be good to know who represents which interests. Estonia has three or four major PR firms.
“When the same client uses several PR companies at the same time, it is not fair play,” Kallas said.
The public could also be made aware of the background of law firms.
“Lawyers can tell you how that world works. How conflicts of interest are engineered. There is someone pulling the string, making sure their interests are safe. The public could be made aware of these things,” Siim Kallas said.