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Lobbying exposes EU to corruption risk says watchdog

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Lobbying exposes EU to corruption risk says watchdog

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(BRUSSELS) - EU governments and institutions must adopt robust rules for powerful lobbies seeking to shape laws and policy or face the risk of corruption, anti-graft watchdog Transparency International warned Wednesday.

The 19 European countries and three EU institutions studied in a new report by the watchdog scored an average of 31 out of 100 when measured against international lobbying standards.

Hungary and Cyprus came lowest in the ranking, scoring only 14, while Slovenia came out best with a middling 55.

"Unfair and opaque lobbying practices are one of the key corruption risks currently facing Europe," Elena Panfilova, vice chair of Transparency International said in a statement.

"European countries and EU institutions must adopt robust lobbying regulations that cover the broad range of lobbyists who influence -- directly or indirectly -- any political decisions, policies or legislation," she said.

"Otherwise, the lack of lobby control threatens to undermine democracy across the region."

The watchdog's report said only seven countries -- Austria, France, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and the United Kingdom -- have laws or rules "specifically regulating lobbying activities".

Only the European Commission itself, which scored 53, and Slovenia made it over the 50 mark, with even them showing "gaps in regulatory coverage, loopholes and poor implementation of rules," it said.

The commission, the powerful executive of the 28-member European Union, has recently toughened its lobbying regulations.

The watchdog highlighted the fact that Cyprus (14), Italy (20), Spain (21), and Portugal (23) -- countries at the heart of the financial crisis -- ranked at the bottom of the list along with Hungary.

Transparency International said the council of the EU, a powerful institution representing member states, scored only 19 while the European Parliament got 37 percent.

- 'Double standards' -

It said there is a problem in dealing with lobbying from a whole range of sectors including the alcohol, tobacco, automobile, energy, financial and pharmaceutical industries.

"The vast majority of European countries reviewed have no comprehensive regulation of lobbying and no system in place to systematically record contacts between lobbyists and policy-makers," Transparency International said.

"Europe lags behind Canada and the United States in this regard," said the report that did not study all 28 EU member states.

This is the score of the remaining countries on the list: Lithuania 50, United Kingdom 44, Austria 40, Ireland 39, Netherlands 34, Poland 33, Czech Republic 29, Estonia 29, France 27, Slovakia 26, Bulgaria 25, Germany 23.

Sergejus Muravjovas, a Lithuanian at Transparency International, told a press conference that new member states Slovenia, Lithuania and Latvia scored better than even founding members Germany and France, because they "were asked to adopt legislation that many older member states did not have."

He added: "We have been living in the EU of double standards for the the past 20 years."

The watchdog acknowledged that lobbying is "an integral part of a healthy democracy" on condition it is properly regulated.

It called for a broad definition of lobbying, and for requiring lobbyists to register, record details on who they represent, "who they target, with which resources and with what purpose."

The alleged influence of special interests on EU policy has in the past drawn headlines.

In 2012, Malta's John Dalli stepped down as European health commissioner after the EU fraud office said a Maltese entrepreneur used his contacts with Dalli to seek a bribe from a Swedish firm in return for changes to draft tobacco legislation.

Dalli categorically denies all wrongdoing.

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