Giegold: ‘Many member states avoid European transparency like the plague’

Sven Giegold [European Parliament]

EXCLUSIVE / Back in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker prioritised transparency as a crucial point of his Commission’s mandate. EURACTIV Germany spoke with Sven Giegold about the future of transparency in the institutions.

It isn’t just the European Commission that is on a transparency drive. The European Parliament is also preparing a report on the matter. Among other measures, a “legislative footprint” is being discussed: any officials working on new EU laws would have to document any and all conversations had with lobbyists.

The draft report also calls for more transparency when it comes to the informal trialogue meetings between the Commission, the European Parliament and Council behind closed doors. Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs is expected to vote on the report’s proposals after the summer break.

Sven Giegold represents the Greens/EFA at European level and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen at national level and is rapporteur for the transparency draft.

Giegold was interviewed by euractiv.de’s Manuel Müller.

The official statement that accompanies your draft report says that the EU institutions are more transparent and clean than most at national level. Nevertheless, EU citizens have less trust in the Brussels machine. So could you argue that the problem is one of perception, not reality, and that more transparency isn’t really going to do anything?

I think it’s a bit of both. On the one hand, you’ve got the institutions that loom large, seemingly corrupt or intransparent. But on the other, they are suitably accountable because of the power they wield. As pro-Europeans, we have a big interest in Europe being a pioneer in transparency and integrity. Many member states have carried out positive reforms over the last year, with more countries being more transparent on lobbying and implementing stricter rules against politicians’ conflicts of interest. For Europe, it’s time to go a step further.

For a while, calls for more transparency in European politics were mainly the mainstay of eurosceptic and populist politicians like Hans-Peter Martin or Ashley Mote, who founded the so-called “Platform for Transparency” in 2005. How has your approach differed?

First of all I would say that it is completely wrong to say that transparency is just championed by anti-Europeans. The lobby register that we have in Brussels (unlike, for example, in Berlin) was passed by a large pro-European majority.

The anti-Europeans are against the Brussels’ institutions and use the issue of lobbying as a way in which to discredit them. Our interest in this issue is to strengthen citizens’ confidence in the EU. For this reason, the impression that more influence in Brussels can be won through having more money and, therefore, more lobbyists, has to be taken seriously.

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Where does this impression come from?

Up until now, there has been insufficient Europe-wide attention. While there are more conversations going on in different countries on different themes at the same time than before, we still don’t have a shared public discourse. This leads to the assumption that influence can be easily bought in Brussels – not just through corruption, but through stakeholders effectively pushing their own opinions on political decision makers.

That is why we need transparency as a counterweight. If lobbying was completely transparent, then there would be much greater incentive to listen to less powerful interests. For example, consumers are hardly ever heard, while suppliers of good and services are ever-present. If this imbalance was addressed then these interests would have a voice in the Parliament, Commission, Council and at home in their respective member states.

The Committee’s vote on the report was initially scheduled for 20 April, but has been postponed twice. Have the negotiations been more difficult than expected?

The original schedule was ambitious. We made a lot of amendments and a lot of contributors gave their input. That made me very happy, but at the same time complicated things. It’s no secret as well that some of the most significant proposals in the report are quite controversial, as regards the trialogues, the waiting period for MEPs when they want to switch to lobbying jobs and the legislative footprint, which would make lobbying actually transparent. So the negotiations haven’t always been easy.

Additionally, working in parallel to us is a working group on a reform to the Parliament’s rules of procedure, under the leadership of Rainer Wieland (EPP) and Richard Corbett (S&D). That is where progress on regulating transparency and integrity is being made.

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Many of the report’s proposals don’t just concern the Parliament, but also apply to other bodies of the EU, like the Council of Ministers. How do you intend to convince national governments that the proposals are the way forward?

Recently, we have had the first signals from the Council that joining the transparency register could happen under certain circumstances. That’s a really positive step. But at the same time we can’t be naive: any upping of transparency, integrity and accountability at European level creates pressure to do the same at member state level. Therefore, many member states avoid these steps like the plague.

Here in Brussels, the permanent representations of the member states are low-hanging fruit for lobbyists, while the Parliament and the Commission are more difficult to influence. Therefore, it’s important that these measures are embraced by the member states too. But even if they don’t then there is no reason why the Parliament and Commission can’t take the next step.

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