Interview: Spencer – Transparency should not be limited to corporate lobbying

Debates over EU transparency rules have focused too much on corporate lobbying and not enough on broader governance issues, including member states lobbying, ECPA’s Tom Spencer told EURACTIV in an interview. 

Tom Spencer is Executive Director of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA) at the School of Management, University of Surrey, Guildford. From 1979 to 1984, he served as an MEP for the UK Conservative Party, representing Derbyshire.

The Transparency Initiative was announced several months ago by Commissioner Kallas. After all the comments already made, where do you think the debate now stands?

My instinct is that the debate has become muddled. The original intent of the commissioner was financial transparency which I profoundly approve of. Then you have the subsidiary exercise about the funding of non-governmental organisations where I think a pragmatic solution can be found. But then there is the item that has grown out of all proportion about the practice of corporate and public affairs. Furthermore, the whole of the debate has been ambushed by eurosceptic members of the European Parliament in a separate question about ethics and the President of the Commission’s summer holiday! So I think now is a good time to step back and ask: Where is the debate now? How do we develop it? What is it really about? 

In short, you say the debate has drifted onto trying to corner corporate lobbying and the public affairs profession at large?

The faulty logic sequence as it has been expressed in the debate so far goes: Transparency – that is offended by lobbying. By lobbying they mean corporate lobbying.  By corporate lobbying they mean companies using paid professional consultants here in Brussels. This is the wrong starting assumption for many reasons, but primarily because public affairs is much larger than lobbying. Lobbying is only about 10% of the total process.

Most of the analysis in such debate as we have had seems to be either out-and-out anti-capitalist and not keen to see business have any influence, or naïvely and overly American. The American style analysis assumes that what works in Washington – which is a larger more complicated public affairs process, involving huge sums of money flowing directly to political parties – can work in Brussels. Washington DC is totally different. You cannot simply cherry pick items out of an American system and apply them to Brussels or the wider Europe. We need something homegrown and something that recognises that  all the European institutions need good public affairs and information – not just from companies or their paid representatives, but from churches, trade unionists, NGOs, civil society and indeed each other. 

Numerous lobbyists in this town are national civil servants lobbying each other, Parliament and the Commission. They are joined by large numbers of third country diplomats doing much the same thing. We need to recast what we mean by ‘lobbyist’ at this early stage before the green paper is published. If you ask the wrong questions, you are absolutely certain to get the wrong answers.

So you would like to broaden the definition of lobbying to include third countries and member states diplomats who lobby the EU institutions. But if you want to do that, you are then no longer speaking of just transparency, you are raising a general question of governance…

I think this debate should be rooted in governance and in the better regulation initiative that the Commission has already been doing. I really do think that the professional public affairs consultants in this town are only the tip of the iceberg. 90% of public affairs is not conducted by such consultants. Think of the number of trade association in this town or the number of citizen’s groups. This is a huge exercise and it is what Europe is about. It is how Europe communicates with its citizens. 

Yes, this absolutely ought to be a governance issue.  If you root the debate in governance, there then there are important things to be said. Now, this may well be a debate that the Commission – once it has had time to reflect – does not want to prioritise or engage in now. That is up to them, but they must take that decision within the next couple of weeks if they are going to prepare a green paper for October or November. 

You mean the Commission might end up leaving the member states lobby out of the picture and only keep the corporate professional lobbying? Is that the direction it is taking?

No, I think the Commission is just beginning to engage with this. It is as if they have pulled casually at a thread, and the thread is getting longer and longer, and thicker and thicker. More and more issues are being put in. This is the moment to decide how much energy they want to put into this. 

If they want to take the high road and do it properly, then I think they might consider an institution that is already well developed. Maybe we should have an ombudsman-like figure to oversee just one code of public affairs practice for all those who are seeking to influence decisions. The ombudsman, which we already have in place elected by Parliament, is charged with overseeing maladministration by law-makers. 

There are really two communities in this town and in all the European capitals that make up the European Union political space in which decisions are influenced. There are those seeking to influence law-makers and then there are law-makers themselves. One aspect of the unsatisfactory nature of this debate in the last few months is the confusion of the two. President Barroso and his Mediterranean holiday or the bad behaviour of a research assistant in the European Parliament is all part of how law-makers behave. In Westminster we have a Parliamentary Commissioner who is charged with saying whether MPs or ministers have behaved within their agreed codes of practice. 

If we really want to bring the same kind of rigour to the situation in Brussels, we need one system to govern, and if necessary rebuke, the law-makers, and a second one to oversee the code of behaviour of law-influencers. I think there exists a model in the shape of the ombudsman but that is a huge project and the question really is for the Commission to answer now. Do they intend to go that way, or are they going to stay with a kind of partial irrelevance that produces headlines, but really generates more heat than light.

Talking about law-makers and law-influencers – some EU member states experts come to Brussels on a piecemeal basis to participate in so-called ‘comitology’ committees. Are they law makers or influencers, and how do you draw the line between the two?

They are law-makers. They are legally part of the process. Commission officials are legally part of the law making process. Parliamentarians and their staff are legally part of the law making process. Committee or Group staff in the European Parliament or members of the Council Secretariat are all part of the law-making process. Comitology is a shared process involving upwards of 50,000 individuals. Not just member state officials, but academics, businessmen and the rest. The players understand the rules.  The distinctions could be described as difficult in theory, but easy in practice.

So what you are saying is that the rules that should apply to the law-influencers should include the corporate world beyond consultants, as well as the trade unions and the NGOs trying to influence the process?

The key is, who is trying to influence the decision? If it is someone who is not part of the law-making process, in my view their behaviour should be as transparent as we can make it. But the rules must apply to everybody. The rules that apply to professional lobbyists should also apply to moonlighting journalists, and to all those who present themselves as experts. If one were an entirely cynical observer of the whole process, one could go out and buy a think tank, a journalist and a specialist on any subject. You could make a payment to them and nobody would ask you to declare that. Yet they are all open to influence.  At the moment it is not clear who is paying them to think or act in that way. In my view, if you engage in the process of influencing law-making you should be prepared to say who you are and what you are intent on doing. 

What is your recommendation for Commissioner Kallas on the green paper? Would you encourage him go down the governance route and put his transparency initiative in a governance context?

My advice would be to either do it properly or not do it at all. In other words, either to limit himself purely to the transparency of the Commission and the Union’s financial arrangements – which would be a major help – or to take a deep breathe and tackle the whole system. But tackling the whole system would take a lot more preparation than I think has been devoted to the subject so far. 

Read the shorter version of this interview

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