“If the State does not define the rules, we will define them”: lobbying companies prepare “self-regulation” in 2024"
The Portuguese Association of Communication Companies will create its own rules if regulating lobbying is not a priority for the Parliament at the start of the next legislature. All parties are “open” to listen – but there are still “a lot of grey areas”.
If Parliment does not move towards regulating lobbying at the beginning of the next legislature, communication companies in Portugal that represent private interests with public decision-makers will create “self-regulation” instruments for the sector. The guarantee was given to Expresso by Domingas Carvalhosa, president of the Portuguese Association of Communication Companies (APECOM), which represents almost 30 companies and around 80% of the national market. “We are working on a manual of good practices that we will implement in all [association] companies. If the State does not define the rules, we will”, she states, urging Parliament to regulate lobbying as early as 2024. “We would like the Portuguese Parliment to come forward, but we are not going to wait much longer. We will move forward next year.” The topic is back on the agenda following Operation Influencer, which led to the fall of the Government. Diogo Lacerda Machado, a friend of António Costa, is suspected of having influenced state decisions in favor of the company that has the data center project in Sines (Smart Campus). Just like the Prime Minister's former chief of staff. He is indicted for influence peddling, as is the Prime Minister's former chief of staff, Vítor Escária.
At the moment, only two parties with parliamentary seats are against lobbying regulation: PCP and Bloco de Esquerda. This Wednesday, socialist deputy Pedro Delgado Alves told “Público” that the approval of the lobby “is long overdue” and will be attempted in the next legislature “in all likelihood” – a position similar to that of the PAN, which recalled the “importance ” of the subject in light of the recent political crisis. Luís Montenegro assured a few days ago that the PSD will also return to the topic in the electoral campaign, as well as Iniciativa Liberal and Livre. Parliament even approved a diploma in 2019, but it was vetoed by the President of the Republic due to “three essential gaps”: it did not apply to the Palácio de Belém, it did not oblige lobbyists to declare their salaries, nor did it provide for the registration of all professionals in contact with political power, “but only the main ones”. The parties tried again in 2021, when PS and PAN worked on a joint text whose vote was postponed at the last minute; and last year, when PAN and Chega delivered diplomas whose discussion was never scheduled.
There are at least 29 countries worldwide with some type of lobbying regulation, shows a Reuters report published earlier this month: the overwhelming majority are European countries, but this is a “global phenomenon” that has already reached Asia (Taiwan) or to South America (Peru). In Portugal, the connotation of words weighs heavily and professionals in the sector use various expressions unwillingly. “I don't like the word 'influence'”, says Rita Serrabulho, former advisor to the Ministry of Economy in the Government of Passos Coelho and director of Political Intelligence, a 'public affairs' company that arrived in Lisbon in 2018 and has been operating for several years in Brussels and Madrid. ‘Public affairs’ means “public affairs” in a literal translation, but it does not explain the profession. “Basically, what we do is monitor political activity, understand what is happening and anticipate decisions that could impact our clients”, she explains. Diogo Belford, who was Paulo Portas' deputy at the CDS-PP and in the government, is responsible for this area at Cunha Vaz & Associados, one of the main communications consultancies in the country corroborates this position: "Representatives of legitimate economic interests must be able to dialogue with political decision-makers.”
Serrabulho says that around 90% of its clients are multinationals in areas such as energy, technology, aviation, real estate and retail. Contacts are always made through official channels: sending an email to a parliamentary group asking for a hearing on a certain topic, for example. “What you can do afterwards is call the deputy in question and give more context informally”, explains a source. “Sometimes we accompany clients to meetings, sometimes they go alone, sometimes we represent them.” There are no defined rules, the modus operandi varies, “the absence of a legislative footprint only encourages illicit activities”, adds Serrabulho. Another lobbyist corroborates this position: “Without regulation you are left in a no man’s land, with many gray areas, and this encourages abuses by companies and political power”. Recording the name and reason for the meeting upon arrival would be a simpler and more “transparent” method, he guarantees. “If the State doesn’t define rules, we define them”: lobbying companies prepare “self-regulation” in 2024
A LAWYER IN THE ROOM?
“Legislators don’t know everything, nor do they have an obligation to know,” says a lobbyist who has worked in parliamentary and ministerial offices. Recently, some unclear lines in an environmental diploma that the Government transposed from a European directive could have had an impact on another vital sector of the State – if a group of lobbyists had not helped to make “small corrections”. Shortly afterwards, at least two temporary measures to respond to the cost of living crisis were extended by the Government: another company doing public affairs, other clients.
“We are welcomed by all parties”, guarantees Domingas Carvalhosa, and therefore criticizes the position of BE and PCP: they accuse private parties of wanting to “institutionalize influence peddling” to create “a new business model”. But this business already exists, says the head of APECOM. “In influence peddling, you don’t know who is representing who. It's all done in the dark. In lobbying everything is registered, and whoever wants to go and see it.” All parties “are quite open” to these contacts, say all the sources interviewed by Expresso – especially the small ones, partly due to “the lack of their own legislative capacity”, points out a former lobbyist, dismissing Chega: “Companies do not. They are so interested in meeting with the far right for reputational reasons. And also because Chega's proposals are unlikely to be approved”, notes this source, who worked during this legislature. Outside the AR, the strongest theory for the current blockade is this: lawyers would have to reveal their clients, but they have a duty of “professional secrecy”. A person responsible for one of the largest law firms in the country is adamant: “Lawyers cannot lobby due to the nature of the profession.” Public affairs consultants do not have the same obligations. “When a lawyer goes to Parliament to speak to political decision-makers about his client's interests, that is not advocacy. It’s lobbying”, says Domingas Carvalhosa, asking the President for a public position on the issue. There are shades of gray. “Pure and tough advocacy is one thing, interest representation is another. The border is what is plotted. There are situations in which the argument [to try to influence a decision] touches on the law, and these situations are not always obvious”, says a lawyer who has previously held government functions. And a professional lobbyist adds: “When the client has a lawyer in the room, they always feel safer.” Despite having more advanced rules, the European Union is going through the same debate. There are 80 large offices in Brussels, but only 17 are registered with the common transparency mechanism. Above all, the political crisis shows the urgent need to regulate the profession, says Carvalhosa. When the AR takes office, it wants rules that are “simple, free and preferably online, to reach the greatest number of people”.
If this were the current scenario, perhaps the Government would not have fallen so violently, points out another lobbyist. The company [Smart Campus] sat down with the Government. If recording [of meetings] had been mandatory, perhaps the whole situation would have been minimized. If there are no rules, the consequences are what they are.”
By Tiago Soares