Timmermans: Increasing transparency on lobbying will boost credibility of institutions

Frans Timmermans at the "Towards transparency and trust: the future of EU lobbying" conference [Ninon Bulckaert]

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans insisted on the need to implement full transparency about lobbying in all European institutions, including the Parliament and the Council, at a conference on Thursday (21 June).

The Commission has set an example for the Parliament and the Council in terms of transparency by proposing and adopting in its ranks a mandatory lobby register. It sets a “no registration, no meeting” rule when it comes to EU officials treating with lobbyists.

The negotiations between the three EU institutions on a mandatory Transparency Register for EU lobbyists began one year ago, but no common agreement has been found yet. The sticking point mainly revolves around independence and confidentiality.

“There is nothing wrong with lobbying, but there is something wrong with shady lobbying,” Timmermans said. “Increasing transparency on lobbying will increase the credibility of our decision making and our institutions,” he said and urged the Parliament and Council to commit to a mandatory Transparency Register as well.

Danuta Hübner, an MEP for the EPP, responded by saying that the Parliament was among the first instances to put the transparency issue on the table.

“We need to close the loopholes thanks to an upgraded agreement,” she said. “Some MEPs respect registration, such as the Greens. I believe that peer pressure will push more MEPs to commit to it.”

EU mandatory register for lobbyists, a baby step towards full transparency

Over time, the business of influence has been honed into a fine art in Western democracies. But that art is becoming increasingly regulated, even if the average citizen perceives lobbyists as cigar-smoking men in suits wining and dining lawmakers to gain an unfair advantage.

The Parliament is working on a voluntary registration system, which is not enough, according to Timmermans. “The absolute priority is to go from a voluntary to a compulsory system. When we implemented it in the Commission, the number of registrations miraculously increased. There is a difference between being ‘committed’ to transparency and actually publishing and being transparent.”

Timmermans also reminded that MEPs have a direct mandate, that they were elected by European citizens and that their loyalty lies with them. Consequently, they should not depend on other informal ‘rules’.

Daniel Freund, the head of advocacy EU integrity at Transparency International EU – an organisation committed to fighting corruption – also warned about pitfalls such as “under registration” and indirect lobbying.

“Sometimes, lobbyists are registered but they don’t disclose all their activities. And very often, we are confronted with indirect lobbying, and fighting it requires a big amount of time and money. Lobbyists can hide behind other companies and organisations and it is sometimes hard to expose them.”

Lobby register reform must deliver strong data checks and enforcement

If an organisation breaks EU lobby rules, it should not be able to continue accessing policy-makers in Brussels. That requires a comprehensive “no registration, no meeting” rule, which the Parliament and Council seem unwilling to adopt, and until they do so, the Commission will not extend it internally, writes Margarida Silva.

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