Council ‘ready’ to join EU transparency register

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Openness in the EU institutions received a boost yesterday (23 June) after the Council of the European Union declared that it was "ready to consider" joining a new transparency register launched by the Commission and Parliament. 

Yesterday, the Commission and the EU assembly launched a new online lobby registration scheme in a bid to improve the transparency of the EU decision-making process.

The launch represents the culmination of years of discussions between the two EU institutions on setting up a joint lobby register. Until now, lobbying activity has been subject to separate voluntary registers that apply only to the Commission and the Parliament.

"Today is a great day for the transparency of policymaking in Europe," said European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi? after signing the agreement that launched the new ‘transparency register’ along with European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek.

Registration voluntary

Registration in the joint system is voluntary, but all lobbyists who wish to enter the Parliament’s premises will have to register, giving them a strong incentive to do so.

Signatories will have to reveal the number of staff involved in advocacy and the main legislative proposals they have covered, as well as the amount of EU funding they have received.

Individuals are not expected to register unless they are self-employed individuals working under contract to represent their clients.

"All organisations, whether trade and professional associations, NGOs, think-tanks or others who have nothing to hide will be in the register and will provide the public and the [EU] institutions with information about their work," Šef?ovi? said.

By signing up to the joint register, organisations commit to a Common Code of Conduct to ensure that individuals always identify themselves by name and declare which entity they are working for. Signatories must pledge not to obtain information dishonestly.

A joint secretariat will be established to deal with complaints. If a complaint is upheld, the registrant concerned will be asked to conform to the rules or correct any false or misleading information in the register.

If an entity is found to have violated the Code of Conduct, it can be temporarily suspended from the register, excluded in cases of severe or persistent failure to comply, and even have its European Parliament access cards withdrawn. 

Making life difficult for non-registrants

"All those who are not in the register will have to be asked why they can’t be transparent – and they will see their daily work made more difficult by not being registered, in particular through the requirements of the European Parliament," said Šef?ovi?.

The Slovak commissioner also expressed his delight with the Council’s decision to explore how it could take part in the scheme.

The Council said it was "ready to consider having a role in the register" and was looking forward to discussing "the possible modalities with the two other institutions".

The institution, which represents governments, has long been reluctant to participate in inter-institutional discussions on setting up a joint lobby registration scheme. Many of its employees are seconded from national posts at home, making their inclusion in an EU register more difficult. 

"The Council considers that transparency should guide relations with interest representatives and that the register provides a useful basis on which to build and interact with them in an open, inclusive and consistent fashion," read a statement from the institution. 

The new register replaces the Commission’s own system for lobby registration, which has been in place since 2008 and features over 4,000 signatories. More than 1,700 organisations are accredited as interest groups in the Parliament.

Those registrants will gradually be transferred to the new system over the next twelve months.

The names of individuals will not be included, but the register will give details of the number of persons involved in lobbying activities as well as the amount of EU resources signatories have received. 

Financial disclosure required

The scope of the register "covers all activities […] carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formulation or implementation of policy and the decision-making processes of the EU institutions, irrespective of the channel or medium of communication used," reads the text of the joint agreement on establishing a transparency register.

Such activities include outsourcing, media, contracts with professional intermediaries, think-tanks, platforms, forums, campaigns and grassroots initiatives, the document states.

Among the activities covered are contacting MEPs, officials or other staff of the EU institutions, circulating letters, information material or position papers, and organising social events or conferences, "invitations to which have been sent to Members, officials or other staff of the EU institutions".

"All organisations and self-employed individuals – irrespective of their legal status – engaged in activities falling within the scope of the register are expected to register," the document states.

The rules governing financial disclosure will be similar to those used by the Commission for its current lobby register (see previous coverage).

Transparency groups want improvements

Transparency campaigners, meanwhile, warned that the new register would only be effective if it is used properly.

"The new register will be a test of the commitment of all parties involved in lobbying to greater openness," said Jana Mittermaier, head of the Brussels office at Transparency International, calling on officials and registrants to use the system "in the spirit of the Code of Conduct that accompanies it".

Indeed, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), another campaign group, called for the scheme to be improved at the earliest opportunity.

Mandatory registration should remain the long-term goal of the Commission and Parliament. Preparations for a transition, at least by 2015, should start now, the campaign group demanded.

ALTER-EU wants the names of lobbyists who are found to have breached the rules to be published and thinks that the period of transition to the new scheme should be just three months rather than a year. 

Andrew Williams

"With increased power comes greater responsibility, and I welcome the agreement on a joint transparency register between the European Parliament and the Commission. It represents an important step forward in regulating relations of MEPs with outside interests, providing a direct response to citizens’ concerns.  It sends a positive signal confirming our determination toinstil transparent and ethical practices at the European level," said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek.

"I hope and encourage the Council to join us in bringing greater transparency for the public and interest groups," Buzek added.

"I am pleased that the Council is now willing to play an active role in the register as well. With the new Code of Conduct for Commissioners and now the Joint Transparency Register, we have set benchmarks for many other capitals in Europe and the world," said European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?.

European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis, the UK Liberal Democrat MEP who represented the EU assembly in the talks that led to the new scheme, said: "I feel that we have finally accomplished a goal our working group set ourselves several years ago, and […] by launching this joint register for interest representatives between the Commission and the Parliament, I hope that we will help toinstil a more solid culture of transparency in Brussels."

"Up until now, there may have been some confusion. Now there can be none: one register, one place to sign up. And for all those who want to take part in the EU policymaking process, this register will also demonstrate that our institutions are working together," Wallis said.

"This is why I am thrilled that the Council has now announced its willingness to take steps in joining us. Together we are taking a strong step in the right direction," she claimed.

Jana Mittermaier, head of the Brussels office at Transparency International, hailed the launch of the register as "another step in the right direction" which "encourages the European Commission and European Parliament to take further steps".

"The new register is an important milestone in creating greater transparency around EU lobbying activities," she added.

José Lalloum, chairman of EPACA, the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association, said "the success of the register is clearly in the interest of our professions and we urge the Commission and the Parliament to ensure that there are clear benefits, in terms of access, event participation and consultations, to being a registrant".

Richard Linning, president of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), said the register’s objectives "resonate with our own 50-year-old code of ethics which has recently been re-launched in clearer language and in more than 25 translations".

"We expect the new register to streamline access to Commission officials and MEPs," he added.

Lyn Trytsman-Gray, president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), said "transparency and trust lie at the heart of good decision making and good lobbying". As for the register itself, she said "there are […] some areas that still need attention and we will work closely with the Commission to ensure they are addressed".

SEAP expressed specific concerns about the register’s implementation. "It explicitly allows double counting for companies employing consultants, there is confusion in the way registrants will list the areas of EU law they follow, the complaints system allows for suspension before adjudication is complete, [and] the visibility of compliance with stronger codes of conduct such as SEAP’s is poor," the organisation said.  

In future, [European Parliament] passes will only be issued to registrants. SEAP is also concerned that the [Parliament] is considering the removal of the useful annual badge, thereby forcing everyone to queue for daily passes. This will waste the time of lobbyists, [Parliament] staff and MEP assistants, as well as removing one of the key incentives to registration," it stated.

Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, speaking for campaign group the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), said: "We welcome the improvements in the new Commission and Parliament lobby register. But the transparency register does not yet live up to its name and it is crucial that it is continually strengthened. As supported by the European Parliament, mandatory registration should remain the long-term goal."

Friends of the Earth Europe’s Paul de Clerck, another ALTER-EU member, added: "The widespread under-reporting in the former Commission register has shown that strong safeguards for high-quality data are really needed to prevent abuses and scandals."

"Transparency should never be optional. If the data is unreliable, it will remain meaningless to call it the ‘transparency register’. We urge the Commission and the Parliament to start improving the new joint system as early as possible," he said. 

Talks between MEPs and the European Commission on improving the transparency of EU decision-making resumed in May 2010.

An inter-institutional working group (IIWG) was set up to discuss the way forward in creating a common register of interest representatives for the European Parliament and the Commission.

The discussions led to a report on establishing a Brussels 'transparency register', drafted by Italian centre-right MEP Carlo Casini (European People's Party) and adopted by the Parliament plenary in May.

Meanwhile the Council, which represents the EU's 27 member countries, has been reluctant to take part in the negotiations.

Last September, European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis welcomed an announcement by the Council that it would "review" plans to draw up a common lobby register for all three European institutions

But little progress has been seen since, and MEPs last month urged the Council of Ministers to join the new ‘transparency register'.

The European Commission has had a voluntary lobby registration scheme in place since summer 2008, while the Parliament's system is de facto mandatory as lobbyists must register to acquire a badge to access the EU assembly's premises. 

  • Within a year: Commission, Parliament to complete migration of data from existing separate registers to new joint scheme. 

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