This article is part of our special report Lawmaking in the dark.
Compared to the national governments of the member states, the European Union is ahead of the curve when it comes to transparency, former Regional Policy Commissioner Danuta Hübner told EURACTIV in an interview. But improvements are still badly needed.
Danuta Hübner is a centre-right member of the European Parliament from Poland who chairs the constitutional affairs committee. She was the European Commissioner for Regional Policy from 2004 to 2009.
The EU has made efforts to make the lawmaking process in Brussels more
transparent in recent years. How has this been going?
Transparency is not an objective in itself: you have to think as well about accessibility, openness, intelligibility and accountability. Transparency at all levels aims to help citizens to better understand how EU decision-making works, how it is influenced and where the different responsibilities lie. This is all about the trust the citizens have in governance in the EU.
For instance, in the Committee on Constitutional Affairs that I am chairing, we worked on a number of reports dealing with the institutional aspects of transparency of decision-making. We were calling on the Council to make its inner workings more transparent and streamlined to reflect more closely the openness that the European Parliament shows today, so that also our citizens are able to follow its deliberations as they do ours.
There is also an important part of transparency related to the access to the documents that reflect the inputs in the legislative process. A revision instrument that regulates this has been stalled for almost 9 years, in spite of the Parliament’s continuous commitment to enhance it.
You can think also about the transparency of how the EU is financed, which over the years has become a complex patchwork of instruments, inside and outside the EU. You can also look at the transparency of trade negotiations where the European Parliament has gained an ever increasing right to information in order to be able to scrutinise the negotiations on behalf of the EU citizens that elected us. Finally, some of these achievements are also reflected in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, which have proven to be an unprecedentedly transparent process as far as the level of disclosure is concerned.
Is the EU’s transparency register, in which lobbyists have to register, working?
We certainly made a lots of progress in making the interest representatives that surround the EU institutions more visible. It was the Parliament that first set up its Transparency Register as early as 1995, it was followed by the Commission in 2008 and they developed a joint register in 2011 on the basis of an Inter-Institutional agreement. It has grown on average by 1,000 registrants a year and today it covers over 11,000 organisations and individuals.
A number of technical improvements were made as far as its registration is concerned and incentives added for lobby organisations to register. The Parliament has been consistently calling for a mandatory registration system and it has ultimately brought an ambitious objective for its revision in the form of its negotiation mandate, responding to the Commission’s draft proposal for its modification.
How does the European Parliament compare to the other EU institutions in
terms of transparency?
Going further down the road, not all institutions abide by the same standards of transparency. Parliament is a very open institution. This naturally stems from our direct connection to the EU citizens. All the committee meetings and plenary sittings are public and web-streamed, all the documents are directly available online and searchable through the register of documents.
The same goes for the positions of individual MEPs, the number of votes in the plenary are nominal, including naturally the final ones. Everybody can also check how we voted in the committee meetings. You will hardly find a Parliament with such high degree of transparency in the EU.
On the other hand, our partner in the legislative process – the Council – is often castigated for a lack of transparency in its decision-making. This is understandably inherent to its nature. We might be further away from a diplomatic bargaining style veiled by shade of secrecy. But the fact that it’s an EU institution, does not hide the fact that it brings together national diplomats and ministers, coming from the different cultures of transparency, with different mandates and accountabilities.
The biggest problem of course is at the highest level, when we speak about the newest and most prominent institution, the European Council. Lack of transparency at those levels of the decision-making has been consistently detrimental to the EU’s image – leaving the national leaders to misrepresent the constraints they faced at the EU level as well as well its collective achievements.
Finally the Commission, in which I myself worked as a Commissioner, has certainly a higher culture of transparency than a number of national governments in the EU member states. This is not a form of judgment, but transparency binds very much with the acceptance of its actions. And we as parliamentarians have also contributed to improving that, be it in the field of international negotiation or disclosure of the working documents discussed by the various committees and expert groups assisting the Commission in the production of delegated and implementing acts.
Would you say the EU institutions are more transparent or less transparent than national EU governments?
Transparency is enshrined in our Treaties, requiring that all EU institutions conduct their work as openly as possible; to ensure the accountability of the EU institutions and thus increase the possibilities for democratic control.
Those principles don’t necessarily always have the same resonance at the national level, but compared to a number of national institutions, the EU’s ones are certainly very transparent. If we take the example of transparency of lobbying, let’s not forget that the great majority of the EU member states have no statutory rules regulating lobbying and a great number of those that do have adopted them only at the beginning of the decade. So I would say here we are well ahead of the curve and intend to stay so.
Do you think lobbyists have too much influence in Brussels?
This is not necessarily true. Yes, there is certainly an impressive number of lobbyists. Brussels competes with Washington for the number of active representatives of various interests. But that also stems from the complexity of the regulation at EU level.
When we decide to regulate in a specific field, lobbyists are there to complete the picture and help us understand the impact our legislative activities will have on the ground, in often very specific fields. They are here to complete the picture we are getting from the expertise of the Commission, member states, consultative bodies and research carried out within our institutions. There is also a number of checks and balances – one of them is certainly the transparency register.