EU transparency talks to resume next month

european_flag1.jpg [Reuters]

Talks between MEPs and the European Commission on improving the transparency of EU decision-making will resume on 6 May, European Parliament Vice-President Isabelle Durant announced yesterday (26 April). Meanwhile transparency groups called for the establishment of a mandatory lobby register common to all EU institutions by 2014. 

The inter-institutional working group (IIWG) set up to discuss the way forward in creating a common register of interest representatives for the two institutions will convene for the second time next month, said Durant, a Belgian Green MEP.

Durant represents the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the talks. They will also be attended by European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi? and MEPs Diana Wallis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; UK), Jo Leinen (Socialists & Democrats; Germany) and Carlo Casini (European People's Party; Italy).

"I have met Šef?ovi? and he seems ready to get seriously involved," said Durant ahead of the meeting, which will be the first to take place since the Slovak commissioner took over the transparency brief from Siim Kallas after the new European Commission took office at the beginning of the year.

Asked what the IIWG's mandate would be, Durant said "everything must be done again. It was impossible with Kallas because he was nearing the end of his mandate".

She said the May talks would focus on establishing a framework for further discussion. "It's only the beginning. We need to find a working dynamic," she explained.  

The Belgian MEP was speaking at the launch of a new book published by transparency NGO the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), entitled 'Bursting the Brussels Bubble: The Battle to Expose Corporate Lobbying at the Heart of the EU'.

"We are not against lobbyists as such. We need them to make decisions. But we want to know who we're speaking to and who they represent," Durant said.

Ten priority reforms

Among ten priority reforms called for by ALTER-EU are the introduction of safeguards against corporate dominance of advisory groups consulted by the Commission when drawing up draft legislation, revising conflict of interest rules for EU decision-makers – primarily by closing the 'revolving door' of officials moving into industry lobbying jobs – and establishing a mandatory lobby register common to both the European Parliament and the EU executive.

"These demands are ambitious but workable," said Corporate Europe Observatory's Olivier Hoedeman, one of the book's authors and a member of ALTER-EU's steering committee.

Hoedeman said the European Commission's current register, launched in 2008, is "unreliable, full of loopholes and has a low participation rate".

"The voluntary nature allowed those signing up to influence the design of the register, because the Commission relied upon the will of participants to make it a success," he said, blaming a lack of political will on the part of the EU executive.

Hoedeman also called for "full transparency" of the expert groups consulted by the Commission in drawing up legislation. "In most cases you can see the membership, but the Commission is not doing enough to counter industry dominance, for example on the financial regulation group," he said.

ALTER-EU accepts that it is unrealistic to expect a common mandatory scheme to be introduced immediately and suggests that all three EU institutions – including the Council of Ministers – work towards achieving this goal before the end of the current Commission's term in 2014. 

"There is not enough political will to move towards mandatory in the short term," said Hoedeman, "but there is a growing trend, at least in Parliament, not to talk to lobbyists unless they are registered".

In the meantime, the NGO suggests that granting lobbyists badges to access the European institutions could be made conditional on their inclusion in the Commission and Parliament's joint register, as a means of making registration de facto mandatory in the short term too.

"Linking the register to an access pass system would increase participation rates, and that's something that can be done without moving to mandatory," Hoedeman said.

'No plans' to make registration mandatory

Asked by EURACTIV whether the EU executive was planning to move towards a mandatory register, Commissioner Šef?ovi?'s spokesman Michael Mann answered in the negative: "No, there are no such plans. We think the system is working well on the current basis."

Mann expressed satisfaction that around 2,700 organisations had signed up to the register. "Each organisation takes its own decision. There is certainly no campaign to boycott it," he said, adding: "We think signing up is a good signal that an organisation is prepared to be transparent."

As for how the register could be improved to encourage more businesses to sign up, Mann said "a major initiative is the plan for a common register with the Parliament".

"The process is already underway and will be reinvigorated now that [Šef?ovi?] is in office," he added, without giving further details.

ALTER-EU's book, meanwhile, claims that corporate lobbyists outnumber and have the financial resources to outspend public-interest groups on almost every issue. This allows them to enjoy privileged access to key decision-makers in Brussels, the NGO says.

These imbalances "result in a growing number of EU directives, regulations and other policy initiatives that are weakened or distorted by industry's lobbying power," it argues.

Hoedeman called on the European Commission to "clean up" its expert groups by reforming the rules that govern its consultation procedure for tabling new legislation. 

European Parliament Vice-President Isabelle Durant (Greens/European Free Alliance), a member of the inter-institutional working group on transparency, welcomed the publication of ALTER-EU's book by saying "it's necessary to have such pressure on the EU institutions and to inform the public [of the role of lobbyists in EU decision-making]".

"It is very important for me as a member of the working group to have someone lobbying us on transparency," she said, reiterating her desire to make quick progress on drawing up a common register with the European Parliament.

Urging ALTER-EU to maintain regular contact with her, Durant said "perhaps we won't agree on everything. But it's important for you to keep in contact with me" as talks progress.

Launching the book, Corporate Europe Observatory's Olivier Hoedeman, who is one of its authors and sits on the steering committee of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), said "'Bursting the Brussels Bubble is a guide to the murky world of corporate lobbying in the EU, but it also sets out the key steps needed to clean up the lobbying mess".

"I hope it will serve as a call to action for those who believe that EU decision-making must become more transparent and more accountable – that greater democracy must be secured," Hoedeman said.

"We're concerned because nothing has happened on the [Commission's] lobby register for a long time," said Nina Katzemich, EU specialist at German watchdog LobbyControl and another ALTER-EU committeemember, pointing out that "making registration conditional on badges would at least make it de facto mandatory".

"In October 2009 minor changes were made, but we're still waiting for them to be enforced – we don't know why. Šef?ovi? has been in office for three months, but the process is somehow stalled. He'll only be in office until 2014, so it's high time to act now," she said.

Friends of the Earth Europe's Paul de Clerck, who is also a member of ALTER-EU, said "the book is not just a critique of the current system and its culture of secrecy, undue influence and privileged access. It shows what needs to be done to improve transparency and ethics".

"It's high time for EU decision-makers to act," he concluded. 

"Transparency is a key facilitator of the work of journalists, and they must be clever enough not to be used and abused by lobbyists," said Marc Gruber of the International Federation of Journalists

Describing ALTER-EU's book as "nonsense", Andreas Geiger of Alber & Geiger, a major Brussels lobby firm and leading European government relations law firm, said "the 'revolving door' is used by any organisation which is successful, including Greenpeace and the WWF. The reason is simple: it is the only way to transport institutional knowledge into businesses or NGOs, for example".

"Vice-versa, the 'revolving door' is the best way to ensure that society know-how, economic know-how, etc. is being brought from NGOs and corporations to the institutions," Geiger said.   

Last autumn, the European Commission published a wide-ranging review of the lobby registration scheme launched by Siim Kallas, a vice-president of the EU executive, in 2008 (EURACTIV 29/10/09).

The scheme, which the Commission describes as "the first-ever European benchmark for legitimate lobbying," is designed to help citizens identify the lobbyists who seek to influence EU policymaking. 

According to the EU executive, the register's guiding purpose is to "dispel suspicion that decisions are made for any reason other than the common European interest". 

A report published last week by Friends of the Earth Europe, however, found that the European Union's fifty largest companies continue to hide behind trade groups to do their lobbying despite the introduction of the EU executive's registration scheme (EURACTIV 22/04/10).

Last year's changes introduced tighter financial disclosure rules for registrants, abolishing the percentage-based system in favour of differentiated brackets according to the size of turnover declared.

Moreover, under the new rules, indirect means of lobbying like expenditure on think-tank reports, platforms, forums and campaigns should be included in registrants' files alongside direct lobbying costs. 

The review also confirmed the Commission's view that think-tanks are interest representatives and most are expected to participate in the register, despite some diverging opinions.

The proposed changes are not expected to come into effect until June at the earliest, once the European Parliament has had the opportunity to vote on the new rules. 

  •  6 May: Next meeting of inter-institutional working group on moving towards joint register. 

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