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 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excluded in cases of severe or persistent failure to comply, and even have its European Parliament access cards withdrawn.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.