Building trust – the EU Transparency Register at a crossroads

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Transparency Register could affect Brussels policy-making for years to come. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Lawmaking in the dark.

Negotiations between the Parliament, Council and Commission on a future mandatory Transparency Register for lobbyists were scheduled to start at a technical level on 29 January. Now is a good time to look at what is at stake and how the outcome can positively influence the Brussels policymaking environment for years to come, writes Malte Lohan.

Malte Lohan is the president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP).

At the end of 2017, after months of difficult discussions, the European Council reached a common negotiating position on the Inter-Institutional Agreement (IIA) on a mandatory Transparency Register.

While this was a welcome step forward (and the Estonian Presidency deserves to be congratulated for the progress on its watch), it remains to be seen whether the negotiations can bridge the gap between what the Council position offers and the stated aims of the European Parliament and the European Commission.

The Parliament has generally welcomed the start of the discussions, though views from certain quarters have noted that the Council excluded the Permanent Representations from the scope of the register – an approach with which the Parliament disagrees.

The eventual agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register will shape the Brussels policy-making environment for years to come and will frame the debate around how EU citizens view and understand interest representation in the EU democratic process. The stakes are high, therefore, to get it right.

The adoption of the IIA should establish a definitive set of principles applying equally to all lobbyists. These should guide EU officials and policymakers on how they are permitted to engage with lobbyists while setting standards of professionalism and transparency for EU public affairs professionals which foster a culture of integrity in lobbying.

In other words, a one-stop-shop which provides confidence to public officials, lobbyists and indeed all EU citizens that all parts of society are able, on equal terms, to contribute to the formulation of the laws that govern our lives.   

How could this be achieved?

There is always room for more transparency in the EU policy process, enabling citizens to participate more actively in the democratic life of the EU. However, a first step in achieving this is for the remaining negotiations on the IIA to remain transparent and open to the public. To date, this has not always been the case.

The new Transparency Register should cover all three EU institutions. While there are complexities associated with achieving this ambition, it is essential for the credibility of the future Transparency Register that the EU institutions are seen to share a common commitment to transparency standards. In addition to the Council Secretariat and the Presidency, a mechanism to allow and encourage the Permanent Representations to participate is needed.

Definition of Lobbying

Key to achieving clarity is an unambiguous definition of what is and is not lobbying. The current Transparency Register defines lobbying as “activities, …, carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing” EU policy-making. This definition has caused a lot of uncertainty and confusion among registrants.

The Commission proposal for a new IIA refers to “activities which promote certain interests by interacting with any of the three signatory institutions….with the objective of influencing” EU policy-making. Clearly, the removal of the reference to direct or indirect influence adds welcome legal certainty to the definition.

Whatever the final formulation, the negotiating parties should make sure that the agreed definition is clear and precise in order to enable the registrants to ensure they are compliant with their reporting obligations on the future Transparency Register.

Secretariat Governance

The effectiveness of the Secretariat can only be increased through guidance from a strong Management Board made up of representatives from each EU Institution as foreseen by Article 8 of the Commission proposal.

Such guidance could be further reinforced by input from an Advisory Committee representing Public Affairs practitioners. Such a Committee would support the work of the Management Board, sharing practical input from the practitioners’ perspective on how the future Transparency Register operates – and how to address the practical challenges that will no doubt arise once it is rolled out.

Greater transparency in the EU policy-making process is needed to enhance the trust of EU citizens in how “Brussels” makes laws. A strengthened Transparency Register is a good place to start.  

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