MEPs back joint Parliament, Commission lobby register

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Plans to establish a joint register of lobbyists for the European Parliament and the European Commission were yesterday (19 April) backed by the EU assembly's constitutional affairs committee. MEPs also called on the Council of Ministers to join Brussels' new 'transparency register'.

All lobbyists should be made to sign up to the transparency register and their exchanges with MEPs in charge of steering legislation through the EU assembly listed in a "legislative footprint" annexed to parliamentary reports, the committee decided.

MEPs were voting on a report drafted by Italian centre-right MEP Carlo Casini (European People's Party).

"This is a step forward, but obviously we will have to take others after this," said Casini after his report had been unanimously adopted by the committee.

MEPs expressed hope that a joint register between the Commission and the Parliament would boost transparency by offering citizens a means of finding "all the information on people talking to the EU institutions in one place".

They want the new scheme to be described as a "transparency" rather than a "lobby" register to make it easier for non-commercial organisations like think-tanks and churches to participate.

Parliament still reeling from lobby scandals

The development comes as the European Parliament is still reeling from the cash-for-amendments scandal that led to the recent resignations of two MEPs.

In a bid to contain the damage to the Parliament's reputation, the institution's president, Jerzy Buzek, last month circulated a letter to political group leaders tabling a number of suggestions on how to deal with what he called "the consequences of disappointing behaviour on the part of some of our colleagues".

No mandatory registration

Buzek also outlined proposals to limit the risks of similar scandals in the future.

Concretely, the Parliament will now ask the European Commission to come forward with legislation to establish a mandatory register for all EU institutions.

Until now, lobbying activity has been subject to voluntary registers that apply only to the Commission and the Parliament.

The Parliament also envisages creating a de facto mandatory register for lobbyist visitors, requiring them to register on a daily basis even if they hold a one-year access pass. The register is expected to keep track of who they are meeting and which meetings they are attending in the European Parliament.

For now, however, the joint transparency register will be introduced only on a voluntary basis, despite the committee reiterating its call for mandatory registration of all lobbyists in the new common scheme. 

MEPs were nevertheless quick to point out that the agreement as it stands "will provide a strong incentive for registration, since it will render it impossible for anyone to procure a badge giving access to Parliament without first registering".

Cautious welcome from industry, transparency campaigners

Lobby groups themselves are widely supportive of plans to make registration mandatory, provided that they will be granted access to the Parliament's premises in return for signing up.

"Any efforts to develop policies on transparency within the EU institutions that go beyond the content of the draft agreement on the establishment of a joint 'Transparency Register' would be best handled through mandatory legislation with specific, clear definitions applied equally to all lobbyists, whether housed in an NGO, a consultancy, a law firm, an association, a company, a think-tank or anywhere else," the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) argued earlier this month.

Transparency groups have been quick to criticise the "lack of clear measures" set out in Buzek's proposals.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) wants the EU assembly to makes it mandatory for each lobby group that requests an annual access pass to give details of "the issues they are lobbying on, the names of all their lobbyists, and "the amount of money involved in lobbying the Parliament".

Legislative footprint

MEPs yesterday urged the Council of Ministers to join the common register "as soon as possible" and welcomed the fact that the Council has indicated it will do so.

The committee also backed plans to annex a "legislative footprint" to reports drafted by MEPs detailing all the lobbyists with whom rapporteurs in charge of a particular file met in the process of drawing up the document.

The new joint register is expected to detail the number of individuals involved in activities declared in the register and the level of EU resources received by the registrant. It will also define clearly which activities are covered by the register and introduce procedures for handling complaints and sanctions.

The precise details of the above must still be finalised in ongoing inter-institutional negotiations.

The Parliament will decide whether to approve plans for a joint transparency register at a vote in plenary scheduled for May.

The Parliament and the Commission hope to get their joint lobby register up and running by June. 

The European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) supports the European Parliament's review of its rules to increase ethics and transparency, including the call for a mandatory register.

"EPACA has been a very strong supporter of efforts by the European Commission and the European Parliament to make sure that the functioning of those institutions and their interactions with all external stakeholders are transparent," the organisation said in a statement released earlier this month.

"We have actively supported the voluntary register of the European Commission and welcome the expected arrival of the voluntary joint Transparency Register of the Parliament and Commission in June 2011," the statement continued, adding that EPACA was keen to contribute to its establishment.

"We welcome rules that address the problems that exist while recognising that ethical, transparent lobbying is an important part of policy development in a democracy that provides policymakers with the views of a wide range of affected interests including NGOs, industry and others," it said.

"Ensuring that any new rules adopted are applied equally and fairly to all lobbyists is critical. Hopefully, these rules will be developed in a way that promotes legitimate contact between the European Parliament and the wide range of interests with which it interacts every day, and also in a way that ensures that all such lobbying is ethical and transparent," EPACA added.

In a letter to European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek dated 22 March, ALTER-EU, a transparency campaign group, argued that the "current scandals underline the need for a high-quality, mandatory lobbying transparency register".

"If lobbyists had to declare their activities, it would be easier to identify when the system was being abused," ALTER-EU wrote.

"The new joint Commission and Parliament register which will be launched in the summer is likely to include a larger share of lobbyists, but as it remains voluntary many will continue to lobby without being registered. The weak disclosure obligations moreover will continue to give lobbyists ample opportunities to stay out of public scrutiny," the letter continued.

"We therefore encourage the Parliament to go further and introduce a mandatory lobby transparency system with far more comprehensive and reliable information, before the next elections in 2014," it concluded.  

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.

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 will "review" plans to draw up a common lobby register for all three European institutions. But little progress has been seen since.

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. 

  • May 2011: European Parliament plenary to vote on Casini report.
  • June 2011: Date by which Commission and Parliament hope to get joint lobby register up and running. 

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