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SLOVAKIA IS THE FIRST EU COUNTRY TO CONSIDER COMPLEX LEGISLATION REGULATING LOBBYING

The art of persuasion

SLOVAKIA might become one of the first countries within the European Union to enact complex legislation regulating lobbying. The Slovak cabinet is slated to discuss a draft bill that would legally recognize the activity as a legitimate profession.

SLOVAKIA might become one of the first countries within the European Union to enact complex legislation regulating lobbying. The Slovak cabinet is slated to discuss a draft bill that would legally recognize the activity as a legitimate profession.

The United States, Canada and Australia have broad measures regulating lobbying, with activities, rules and codes of ethics clearly defined. While negotiations between lobbyists and government officials might be conducted over a pleasant dinner in these countries, the Slovak draft bill allows no such luxury. The proposed rules are comparatively strict.

For example, Slovak lobbyists will not be allowed to pay for a politician's dinner or offer them presents.

"In its draft legislation, the Justice Ministry forbids [lobbyists] to provide any kind of 'payments or benefits' during their lobbing activities, mostly because it is not possible to set a clear financial line that is acceptable," Marek Kalavský, advisor to the justice minister, told The Slovak Spectator.

The draft bill has undergone many months of preparation and has been subjected to numerous interdepartmental reviews. Early in the process, when some experts pointed out that the bill failed to make lobbing activities transparent, the Justice Ministry responded by extending the original text of the bill. It decided that lobbyists should publicize with whom they do business.

According to Kalavský, the draft legislation is based on the cabinet's programme.

"It is not being created on the basis of any direct impulse from the business community or any group. Certainly we solicited input from a lobbyist firm and an association of lobbyists in Brussels, but only after the first version of the draft law was ready," Kalavský said.

If the draft bill is passed, Kalavský says that lobbying will soon be perceived as a legitimate form of business, and acknowledged by the state.

Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic firmly believes that lobbying must be held up to public scrutiny.

Many lobbyists welcome the arrival of this legislation. They hope for clarity and sets of rules allowing them to identify their profession without fear of being mistaken as agents of corruption.

"Slovakia needs this legislation primarily because the country is currently undergoing a transformation process. The time has come to position lobbying as a demanding, long-term activity with an uncertain outcome," Miriam Fiťmová, a lobbyist with Interel Public Relations, told the Slovak Spectator.

Fiťmová says that the draft bill's requirement that lobbyists publish lists of contacts and meetings attended will introduce a lot of bureaucracy into the profession. "On the other hand it might bring more transparency," she said.

Another important rule contained in the draft legislation is that a lobbyist will have to forward his or her financial statements to the Slovak Parliament's office.

"I strongly disagree with giving my financial assessments away, reporting on my income and expenses at the same time my tax return is due. Besides, there is nothing in the draft law that protects this information against misuse," Fiťmová explained.

Speaking on behalf of the Justice Ministry, Kalavský believes that the draft legislation will not introduce problems or increase bureaucracy.

"Lobbyists would have to publish their contacts four times. The financial reports would be due once a year. Also, these documents will not need to be so detailed," he said.

Lobbyists that trade as organizations are already obliged to publish their financial statements at the Companies' Registry or inside the Trade Bulletin.

"These reports are incomparably more detailed than what the lobbying draft bill would require them to do," Kalavský said.

It is not clear how many lobbyists would redefine their role according to the new legislation and how many would continue to "hide" their activities under the banner of public relations.

Currently, the line between legal and illegal lobbying in Slovakia is hazy at best. It is illegal to bribe politicians in order to persuade them to vote one way or the other. Lobbying is also forbidden in individual legal cases during a court's proceedings, as well as in public tenders.

In an interview with the Hospodárske noviny daily, Ján Hrubala, the head of anti-corruption office, compared the new draft bill with lobbying practices in the United States, where politicians are allowed to accept money in certain circumstances.

"We don't want to allow our politicians to solicit [lobbyists] for additional income. This would be too dangerous in Slovakia."

He continued: "These people became politicians because of their ideologies and ideas of world control - they receive salaries for this," said Hrubala.

Many European countries do not regulate lobbying. Even European Union institutions rely on lobbyists' own ethical code of conduct.

The Slovak Justice Ministry and the Anti-Corruption Office considered it bad policy to rely on so-called "self regulation".

They argued that lobbying should be made transparent, visible to all. As part of the draft legislation, the Tradesmen License Bureau would enforce the lobbying law.

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