PA boss: Power in Brussels ‘shifting to bureaucratic level’

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Decision-making under the EU's reformed comitology system represents a 'black box' in EU transparency, prominent consultant Daniel Guégen told EURACTIV Czech Republic in an interview, asserting that power in Brussels "is shifting from the political level to the bureaucratic level". 

Daniel Guégen is CEO of CLAN Public Affairs, a Brussels-based consultancy.

His latest book, published in February, is entitled 'Comitology: Hijacking European power?'

He was speaking to Pavel Mádr, editor of EURACTIV Czech Republic.  

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The book you published recently highlights the lack of transparency in EU comitology. Is there a simple solution to this problem?

What should be done is very simple. When we speak about co-decision, things are clear. You are informed about the draft proposed by the [European] Commission and the [European] Parliament’s discussions and amendments, and you have a good idea of what is discussed at the Council. This is a very transparent system – clearly more so than at national level. But when you go to comitology, you enter a black box.  

Can you give some examples of very poor transparency under the comitology procedure?

Yes, when you want to find the relevant comitology committee, you will probably succeed. But when you want to find the members of the committee, the difficulties start, because it is not made public.

The Commission refuses to make it public on the pretext that the members of the committees keep changing from one meeting to another. If you need the information, you must have friends at the Commission or phone national capitals. The EU executive puts some data online, but it is usually late and incomplete. There is no reason to keep anything from comitology secret.

In your opinion, the Commission (but not the Parliament or the Council) was granted more power by the Lisbon Treaty. Is that really the case just a few months since Lisbon came into force?

Without a doubt. You can divide powers into visible ones represented by the co-decision procedure, where the Parliament and the Council are the clear winners of the Lisbon Treaty, and invisible execution powers, where the role of the Commission has significantly increased. This was a big surprise, because the first reform of comitology in 2006 gave veto rights to the Parliament and the Council, and put the EU executive under relatively strict control. And the Lisbon Treaty is an evident step back, giving the Commission more powers, which is in my opinion a mistake.

This environment favours lobbyists, right?

First of all, I must say that I wrote my last book not as a lobbyist but as a citizen. It is a personal book – nothing to sell, just a personal battle.

If you are a lobbyist, the easiest way is to follow the opinion of the Commission. However, most of the time, you have to do the exact opposite: you do not agree with the Commission and you try to change its proposal.

This will be more problematic after the Lisbon Treaty comes into force because it makes comitology even more complex. The Commission proposes and adopts most EU acts under comitology. This is not good news for lobbyists or for citizens due a lack of democratic control.

Do you believe that the new comitology system threatens the institutional balance between the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission?

Yes, that is exactly what I think, and this is very preoccupying, because the laws adopted under co-decision between Parliament and Council only represent 50 acts every year, whilst 2,500 acts are adopted every year under comitology. This means that 98% of acts and regulations adopted by the EU are de facto controlled by the European Commission.

Besides, one notes that in the absence of a European political project and the excessive number of commissioners, the European administration is insufficiently controlled politically. In other words, power in Brussels is shifting from the political level to the bureaucratic level.

You said in an interview in 2007 that you were very surprised by "the shyness of new EU member states,"which were not able to push for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy or a "strong" Services Directive. "They were not good at communication and were passive,"you claimed. Were you only referring to governments, or did you mean other players like NGOs or regions too? Has the situation improved since then?

No, unfortunately I can confirm what I said in 2007. I must admit that the new member states have made a lot of progress in languages, knowledge of lobbying and the decision-making process, but some new member states’ representatives still consider their countries as second category member states.

Are you only talking about government representatives, or do you mean people from the new member states in general?

I refer to most of the representatives of new members who – when I talk to them – agree with me on my observation. We are still new and not supposed to talk loudly, they say. But I think this is a mistake, because Brussels is a wild world and if you are not willing to speak louder, you are not considered as a representative. Moreover, I believe that new member states have a lot to say and represent a big group with huge coalition potential. They have no reason to be shy and stay in the shadows.

Which new member states are doing the best?

Well it is difficult to say, because there are some that I know better than others. I am impressed by the performance of Slovenia and Croatia, which is preparing itself very well for membership. I think the Czech Republic is doing a lot, as well as Poland.

One of the conclusions of your book 'European Lobbying' is that the influence of business groups is declining and the power of civil society groups like NGOs, trade unions and consumers is rising. Is this trend persisting?

Yes, it is. Why? First, business groups are generally very liberal, which some Europeans may consider reactionary. Secondly, business groups are commonly represented by diplomats, yet lobbying is a battle. Moreover, their associations are low-profile and usually try to avoid making any noise. Last but not least, the business community is generally very weak in terms of communication. They are reluctant to discuss with media, they produce awfully boring position papers – you sleep on them. On the contrary, NGOs are well-organised, excellent at communication and very well accepted by the Commission, because they push for more regulation.

Let’s turn to lobbying regulation. You are the well-known proponent of introducing lobbyist chambers – similar to advocate chambers. But would this model really work in all parts of Europe?

In short, you have two systems at the moment: the American and the European. In the US, you have the so-called disclosure act, under which lobbyists have to disclose all their activities: contacts with clients, meetings etc. In appearance, this system is very democratic, but in reality it is not because it is fuelled by big money and a close relationship between lobbyists and political parties.

In Brussels it is the exact opposite – political sponsorship does not exist and this is good. But on the other hand, you have no regulation at all, which in my opinion is a problem.

In June 2008, the European Commission launched the European register, which today gathers over 2,700 interest representatives. How would you assess it?

I was against the register since the very beginning and I have not changed my mind. What do you have to register? Lobbying activity. OK, what is lobbying activity? Secondly, should we really believe what is written there? The private companies tend to minimise their budget on lobbying, while consultants on the contrary maximise it to make it appear as big as possible – as a marketing tool.

It is even worse for EU trade associations and NGOs, simply because VAT is not deductible for the collective representation of interests. When these associations and NGOs disclose their lobbying budgets in the register, they immediately risk a costly VAT audit and a possible fine. There is no logic behind all that, and therefore I have not registered.

OK, let’s turn back to your concept of lobbying chambers. Should it be compulsory for lobbyists to be registered?

Well I don't know. I am not here to dictate anything. The Commission now has to organise real consultation with the professions and work with them together – for example with SEAP– the Society of European Affairs Professionals. The EU executive has to start listening – Commissioner [Siim] Kallas refused to listen: he was on his track listening no-one. The Commission should listen, improve the existing register and come up with some regulation on lobbying.

And your personal view?

In my opinion, membership should be compulsory, but this is a long-term process. You cannot go from zero to compulsory registrations in one step – there should be more steps. As I said, first of all the Commission should start listening, because so far it has been just one-way communication. If the Commission asks for more transparency from lobbyists, it would be logical for the same Commission to accept an equal level of transparency for its own services!

A law regulating lobbying is being discussed in the Czech parliament at the moment. If it were approved, it would be compulsory for interest representatives to register and open their diaries. So it is American-style regulation. Could this help to make lobbying more transparent, as its proponents claim?

You cannot get more transparency by detailed registration of lobbying contacts. This concept is childish for several reasons. Firstly, the decision-making process is too complex to be included in one legislative act. Moreover, relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists are in most cases confidential and one can hardly assume that new legislation would change this. In a nutshell, you can regulate anything you want, but lobbying contacts are based on mutual trust.

The influence of every lobbyist in Brussels is based on two pillars: credibility and contact networks. The credibility of a lobbyist would be significantly improved if he could be the part of respected chamber. On top of this, the chamber would promote the image of lobbyists and lobbying. At present, lobbying has a very poor image in most of the member states, but our profession is very technical, very sophisticated and useful to the decision-making process, because lobbying structures act as a counter-power to the European institutions. As professionals, we are responsible for this image, as well as for improving our image.  

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