Written by Lisa Bauer and Marie Thiel,
To hear the views of all interested parties on the performance of the current joint Transparency Register for interest groups and its possible evolution towards a mandatory scheme, Parliament Vice-President Sylvie Guillaume and Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans together hosted a conference on Monday 2 May 2016. This is part of the ongoing public consultation on the joint Transparency Register for interest groups.
The Vice-Presidents of both institutions were in ‘listening mode’, welcoming the concerns and ideas raised by some 150 representatives from consultancies, law firms, companies, business and trade associations, NGOs, think tanks, organisations representing churches, and local and regional authorities, as well as representatives from the EU institutions. In order to address some of the fundamental issues related to lobby regulation, three discussion groups were set up, focusing on which organisations should be registered; what to do about lobbyists circumventing or breaking the rules; the quality and the quantity of the information; and if there were any best practices to glean from national systems.
The panel for the subsequent discussion included the Vice-Presidents, Ambassador Pieter de Gooijer (representing the Council Presidency), as well as MEPs Jo Leinen (S&D), Sven Giegold (Greens) and Dennis de Jong (GUE), who were all keen to gauge the temperature by engaging with the participants. The Transparency Register seemed to be generally appreciated as a tool, but the level of information provided and its quality needed improvement. If citizens are to understand the decisions taken by the EU, these decisions must not only be taken as openly as possible, allowing for valuable input, but the process itself should be transparent, in order to measure influence and allow for proper scrutiny and accountability of the Union’s institutions.
The overriding take-away from the discussions in the room and on social media (#EUTransparency) can be summarised by the principle ‘practice what you preach’.
Stakeholders and politicians agreed that the right balance would have to be found between disclosure and a space to think, between providing meaningful information on lobbying and having too much information, between promising sanctions and actually being able to implement them, between including all interests with wide definitions of lobbying and possible exemptions, and between introducing additional requirements and improving the existing system.
Examples from different Member States showed that existing lobby regulation tends to be narrow, covering only public affairs professionals, as this is the easiest form of lobbying to measure. Interests are not only represented by paid consultancies however, but may also involve companies, civil society groups, social platforms etc. The current EU register is intended to capture this more complete picture.
Transparency advocates called for loopholes in the EU’s transparency regime to be closed, whereas industry representatives felt that placing a greater administrative burden on the disclosure of their lobbying activities would be counterproductive and that too much information would kill the very value of the information.
All agreed that the quality of entries needed to be improved, to improve comparability and ensure a high standard of information. However, concern was expressed that the Commission’s plan to propose a new ‘de facto’ mandatory system in the autumn, building on the ‘stick and carrot’ approach currently in place, may not necessarily lead to better enforcement powers for the institutions or indeed better quality entries.
The Parliament and the Commission have thus far operated the system under an inter-institutional agreement, where only representatives of registered interest groups gain privileges such as access to Parliament’s premises or meetings with a Commissioner, who incidentally also publishes a record of any such meeting.
An interesting idea proposed by MEPs at the event was for publication of a ‘legislative footprint’, to be annexed to each piece of legislation, allowing citizens to see the impact of lobbying on that particular legislation.
The Council, represented by the rotating presidency’s Ambassador de Gooijer, underlined the importance of the upcoming tripartite negotiations, but also noted that it was unclear as yet whether permanent representations should be subject to EU transparency requirements, whilst remaining answerable to national governments.
Panellists from the three EU institutions agreed that citizens’ confidence in the EU institutions and transparency go hand in hand. While the Transparency Register may not prevent voter dissatisfaction, it can certainly help improve both the quality of legislation, accountability and trust in the decision-making process.
The EU Transparency Register, run by the Parliament and the Commission, is a voluntary system of registration for entities seeking to directly or indirectly influence the EU decision-making process. It covers all organisations and self-employed individuals from trade and professional associations to NGOs and think tanks, irrespective of their legal status. Although the system is voluntary, over 9 000 representative groups have signed up since its inception in 2011, revealing their particular interests, whom they represent, and with what means, while also abiding by a code of conduct for registrants. In turn, Parliament grants registered interest representatives facilitated access to its premises and requires speakers at its public hearings to be registered. In 2014, the Commission decided to keep a public record of all meetings between Commissioners, their Cabinets and Directors-General and registered interest representatives.
Parliament has called on the Commission to review the current interinstitutional agreement (IIA) before 2017 and come up with a proposal for a mandatory system. The Commission has, as part of its 2016 annual work programme, announced that it will present a proposal for a ‘mandatory Transparency Register’ to Parliament and the Council before the end of the year. As a first step, also requested by Parliament, the Commission has launched a public consultation running between March and end May, in preparation for a formal proposal later in the year.