By John O'Donnell
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European lobbyists carry out much of their work in secrecy and there is widespread complacency in Brussels about tackling corruption or conflicts of interest, Transparency International said on Thursday.
In the first report of its kind, the anti-graft campaign group shone an unflattering light on the bodies that draft and police law for the European Union's 28 member states, concluding their lack of interest could prompt more corruption scandals.
The criticism of institutions such as the European Parliament, which researchers said had refused to cooperate with the study, may provide further ammunition to eurosceptics, who are already on track to widen support in EU elections in May.
"The rule book is there to prevent corruption or conflicts of interest but the rules are not enforced," said Carl Dolan, one of the experts involved in the study.
"There is an atmosphere of complacency in Brussels in the way, for example, that conflicts of interest are checked or sanctioned."
"It's often reduced to box ticking, where the declarations are not verified," he said, referring to the practice of putting "old boys" in charge of enforcement. "There are no independent committees that oversee the rules."
Transparency International said this lax approach at the European Commission and other institutions was especially risky given that there are no proper records in Brussels of lobbyists or of those with whom they have contact.
Much lawmaking in Europe, including a sweeping overhaul of banking, is wrapped up in talks between diplomats and lawmakers with no public record of who attended or what was said, it said.
"Important legislation is being agreed in secret meetings, where there is no public record of what happened," said Dolan.
In its 240-page report, the anti-graft group recommended a mandatory register for the more than 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels, a record of how they influence legislation and independent checks to prevent conflicts of interest.
The recommendations came after John Dalli was forced to quit as health commissioner last year when his associate was accused of asking for 60 million euros from Swedish Match in return for Dalli's help in influencing EU tobacco law.
Last month, a former member of the European Parliament, Ernst Strasser, was sentenced to jail after he was earlier filmed by reporters from a newspaper offering to propose amendments to laws in exchange for money.
Transparency International said that much had changed in the 15 years since the mass resignation of EU commissioners led by Jacques Santer after criticism for failing to address sleaze allegations, including the creation of fictitious aid contracts.
But the researchers said many of the rules subsequently introduced were "baffling" and caused confusion among officials.
One third of enquiries to the European Commission's human resources department, it said, concerned what side-jobs or other activities officials were able to take on.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)