EU states mull greater transparency in Brussels

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The Council of Ministers, which represents the 27 governments of the EU, will take on a more active role in making its activities in Brussels more transparent for the general public, it emerged this week (8 September).

A Swedish Presidency official expressed willingness to participate in an inter-institutional working group set up to discuss the issue during the European Parliament’s last legislature. 

“Transparency is very much a priority for the Swedish EU Presidency, and we are considering re-launching the inter-institutional working group on transparency,” Jonas Högström, a counsellor at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU, told a European Parliament event. 

In accordance with a European Parliament report adopted in May 2008, an inter-institutional working group (IIWG) was established in December of that year to examine the feasibility of establishing a common lobby register between the EU assembly and the Commission. As of yet, the Council has not taken part in these discussions. 

Indeed, last week European Centre for Public Affairs Executive Director Tom Spencer told EURACTIV that lobby transparency was unlikely to be a priority for the Swedish EU Presidency given that the appointment of a new European Commission and ratification of the Lisbon Treaty would have to be dealt with under Stockholm’s watch. 

Högström, however, announced that the Swedes had invited the European Commission to present to the Council its experiences following the first year of its voluntary lobby register on 25 September. 

“Given the importance attached by the Swedish Presidency to transparency, we will review the Council’s position,” he said. 

The official warned, however, that the complex nature of national decision-making at EU level would make participation in a common register difficult. 

“We’ll need to be prudent and realistic, and the sceptical attitude of most in the Council won’t change overnight,” Högström said. “This is a new initiative, and we would prefer to wait and see how it develops. Registering national lobbyists at 27 national levels is asking for too much, too early.” 

“If you look at what the Council actually does, then it is not easy to see where the boundaries of registration should end,” Högström said, explaining that “the Brussels-based Council is least-concerned with lobbying, most of which happens in the member states”. 

“Policies are most often decided by capitals, and permanent representations and the general secretariat only follow instructions, so including these would not focus on where policy is formulated,” he added. 

However, “it would be too far-reaching to include lobbying in the capitals and ministries, because this is the whole of EU territory. We could include only prime ministers and ministers, but distinguishing between EU and national policy formulation would be difficult here,” warned the Swedish official. 

Commission, Parliament urge Council involvement 

Welcoming the Swedish Presidency’s willingness to discuss the register, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said the Council’s unwillingness to join his EU transparency drive was “old-fashioned” and “not understandable”. “The EU institutions must stick together, because our reputations are affected simultaneously,” he said. 

Echoing the commissioner, European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis, a UK Liberal Democrat MEP in charge of transparency at the EU assembly, urged the Council to join discussions in the IIWG. “All three institutions must participate, and I want to turn up the heat on the Council. We must get them on board in this debate,” she said. 

“I know that [Swedish EU Affairs Minister] Cecilia Malmström is thinking about joining the IWG, but we have a very limited timeframe,” she added. 

Wallis said she had written to European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek asking him to reconstitute the IIWG at the earliest opportunity in the new legislature. 

The Commission, meanwhile, is currently reviewing the success of its own voluntary lobby register, launched in June 2008. 

"Sweden has a long tradition of transparency. It’s one of the key principles of Swedish administrative law," said Jonas Högström, a counsellor at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU

Regarding progress made towards the establishment of a joint register between all three EU institutions, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said: "So far, the European Parliament and the majority of interest representatives have strongly supported the overall objective. The Council is still not involved, but the Swedish Presidency is open for discussion, or at least we hope so." 

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, vice-president of the EU assembly responsible for transparency issues, echoed this view: "I think that we have a more promising partner in the Swedish EU Presidency." 

Friends of the Earth Europe's Paul de Clerck, who is also linked to ALTER-EU, a lobby transparency group, called on the European Parliament to open up the inter-institutional working group on a common lobby register to the Greens. 

The European Commission launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence its policymaking in June 2008 as part of a wider transparency initiative launched in 2005. 

The scheme is designed to help citizens identify the lobbyists who seek to influence EU policymaking. 

Meanwhile in April 2009, the EU executive and the European Parliament agreed common guidelines and a code of conduct for creating a single lobby register for the two institutions. 

While opinions vary as to the actual number of lobbyists active in Brussels, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas has cited a figure of 15,000 in the past. 

As of this morning (10 September), over 1,800 interest representatives had signed up to the register. 

  • 25 Sept.: Commission to present its lobby registration scheme to the Swedish EU Presidency. 

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