Czech lobbyists target for fresh regulatory attempt

Lower chamber of Czech Parliament, photo: Filip Jandourek

The Czech government has moved, not for the first time, to try and regulate lobbying. The country at the moment is one of the handful in Europe that had no specific set of rules governing what lobbyists can do and how various decision makers, whether they are elected politicians or civil servants, can interact with them.

Marek Dalík,  photo: Filip Jandourek
In one sense, almost everyone is a lobbyist for something or other. The activity ranges from an individual perhaps organising a local petition or asking for minor changes at the local council to major corporations or business interests asking for laws to be shaped in a certain way that suits them best.

In the Czech Republic, lobbyists do not have the highest of reputations. That’s thanks to the activities of a lot of shady figures usually operating close to figures in power. A few names of such characters will help to illustrate, the former Miroslav Šlouf, the former eminence grise of Miloš Zeman; Marek Dalík, who performed the same role for former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, or more recently the lawyer Radek Pokorný, reckoned to be one of the most influential figures close to recent prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka. Marek Dalík is now serving a prison sentence for soliciting bribes in connection with a massive contract for armoured vehicles for the Czech army. But the sentence and publicity about a specific case was exceptional to say the least.

While such shadowy figures are generally described in journalistic shorthand as lobbyists, official lobbyists or public affairs specialists would beg to disagree. Unlike the notorious behind the scenes movers and shapers, official lobbyists say they are up front about who they represent and what they are seeking. The Czech Association of Public Affairs agencies groups six of the biggest lobbying companies on the local market including the local branches of some international big names, such as Grayling and FleishmanHillard.

Václav Nekvapil,  photo: archive of CEC GR
They already have a code of conduct, which for example includes bans on employing or hiring the services of ministers, top civil servants, or members of parliament and not to pay bribes or provide other fees or gifts to promote clients’ interests. Václav Nekvapil is chairman of the association and was one of the main speakers at a seminar held in the Czech parliament earlier this month aimed at fleshing out what sort of new rules on lobbying might now be drawn up.

He stressed that this is not the first time Czech governments have attempted to regulate the local lobbying sector and that some rules, for instance in the civil service law, already cover part of the territory:

ʺThere were several attempts to pass legislation in recent years. There was something in 2009, there was a draft law in 2013. And now three is a draft law which passed through the government but which will have to be finalised within the next few months.ʺ

Some of those previous attempts failed because the government collapsed or there was simply not enough impetus to push through a measure which while mainly focusing on the lobbyists will also affect those they are dealing with, namely the politicians and civil servants. Nekvapil says the scope and ambition of the current push for lobbying legislation is still largely unclear:

ʺIn the draft law there are several options. It’s now up to all interested parties to voice their positions because the law is not very clear who should be regulated and how people should be regulated. There are several options such as restricting the law to people who just lobby on behalf of third parties. Or there is the option to have it inclusive of everyone, including NGOs, churches, and regional representatives for example. There is still a lot of space for manoeuvre and the law does not set out anything really specific.ʺ

But the head of the Czech association of public affairs agencies is adamant that those who see regulating lobbyists as a shortcut to dealing with corruption and misuse of influence are mistaken. Although there are no specific Czech rules now on lobbying, the best that can be delivered is more clarity and transparency for those working above board:

Illustrative photo: European Commission
ʺI think the Czech Republic is not very exceptional. I think there are two needs. The first is a social and societal need for regulating corruption and at the same time there is a response from industry associations that want more transparency in the law making process. I am not seeing much intersection between these two needs. There have been a lot of scandals about misusing public money and special treatment for certain specific interests but we argue that the law on lobbying would not prevent this. At the same time there are a lot of loopholes in the decision making process which could be fixed by a law on lobbying or we could call it a law on transparency.ʺ

Much inspiration for Czech moves to regulate lobbying have come from Brussels and the joint register of lobbyists created in 2011 by the European Commission and European Parliament. The basic rule of the register is that lobbyists have to be written in the register and declare basic facts about who they and who they represent to get access to the people they are likely targeting in the Commission and parliament.

Currently there are around 11,300 entities on this register, up from around 2,000 when it was created. The three biggest types of organisation there are non- governmental organisations and platforms; trade and business organisations and associations; and companies and groups. A survey suggests around 2.0 percent of these lobbying organisations are spending more than a million euros a year on their activity with around a quarter spending more than 100,000 euros. For most though, the budget is a lot less.

Lower chamber of Czech Parliament,  photo: Filip Jandourek
There are now moves to revamp the register. One suggestion is to widen it to the Council of Ministers, where ever more key decisions are taken. And another suggestion is to widen its scope within the European Commission itself. Currently, the register rules cover access to only the top European Commission officials, such as director generals responsible for key areas of policy. Deputy directors are not covered and neither are desk officers though in many cases certainly the former and often the latter grade of civil servants are taking decisions or shaping key aspects of policy.

Václav Nekvapil again:

ʺI think that the European transparency register is the perfect model for us and for both sides. That is for lobbying firms lobbying individuals to register – and all lobbying individuals. That is very important because in the European register there are 11,000 entities. At the same time there is an incentive for civil servants or the [European] Commission employees to meet only those who are on the register. This is easy to do, for civil servants in the Czech Republic for example. It probably not very realistic to apply it to elected politicians. But still I see this European register as a good model taking into account that we already have quite an advanced law on public information. There are other laws on transparency but this decision making process still has some loopholes and so I think the European model could help.ʺ

The worldwide anti-corruption and good government promoter Transparency International regards itself as a lobbyist, admittedly with the highest of motives and ambitions. And it regards lobbying as part of the normal landscape of a pluralistic and democratic society. Ivana Dufková stressed that view at the recent seminar:

ʺI think in the Czech Republic and other countries, this point of view that lobbyists equals criminals is wrong. We at Transparency try to enforce this image that lobbying is legitimate because it is not about rich people who work for some rich companies. It’s about citizens who want to come with their own legitimate interests.ʺ

But Dufková also reckons that any new Czech law on lobbying should be cast as wide as possible with politicians and their assistants also covered:

Ivana Dufková,  photo: archive of Transparency International
ʺWe think and we support the idea to have as broad a target group as possible. Not only the politicians but maybe also their assistants because they are sometimes the first to meet with the lobbyists.ʺ

At the moment some Czech members of the European Parliament list who they talk to and about what on their personal websites. Of course, this is a purely personal initiative and there’s no way to check on if they are declaring everyone and everything. But many Czech politicians have in the past said that making such declarations voluntarily is one matter, being forced to make them under some new rules is a very different thing.