Lobby register review should not be rushed

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Transparency facilitates scrutiny and hence accountability. Despite recurrent criticism and even active campaigns fuelled by some organisations, EU efforts in the area of transparency are among the most comprehensive in the world, writes European Commission Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi?.

Maroš Šef?ovi? is the European commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration.

"It is almost five years since the Commission launched its first lobby register, and nearly two since it was transformed into a joint transparency register with the European Parliament. This was not merely a name change, but also a change of scope.

There are many players in Brussels and Strasbourg who try to influence MEPs, commissioners, officials in the Commission or the Council and even journalists, but many of them are not lobbyists in the traditional sense: they are public affairs professionals, NGOs, semi-public organisations, church organisations, think tanks and foundations and so on. But they all share one commonality – they are all actively seeking to influence the work of EU policymakers, and as such it is in the public interest that they are recorded in the register.

Under the terms of the agreement with Parliament, the transparency register is due for review this year, and I have just launched the process with European Parliament Vice-President Reiner Wieland, who like me is responsible for transparency in his institution. We both take the review process very seriously. We will not rush through our review; indeed, we are both committed to taking as much time as necessary to consult widely, both internally and externally, on how we can do better.

We have already held a public consultation last year and the joint secretariat has produced a report on the register's first year of operation. It details the current state of play (over 5,500 organisations registered) and sets the objectives for the months to come: to improve both the quality and quantity. The report also suggests areas for improvement in the context of the review. We will also hold extensive consultations with other stakeholders during the year.

But we feel it is also important to consult not only with the 'lobbyists' but also with the 'lobbied' – MEPs, their assistants and officials – and to compare the EU system with other lobbying controls in other OECD countries. This is especially pertinent as a number of our own member states (Ireland, UK, Austria, France) have just introduced, or are looking at, their own forms of lobby register.

It will also be important to analyse the actual impact of other systems in place in comparison with our own. For example, the US system is often praised as more efficient because it is mandatory and comes with penal sanctions; but the reality is more nuanced. According to a report produced by the US Bar Association in 2011, "to date there have been no formal enforcement actions filed and only three formal settlements entered". So we need to look beyond the theory and assess the actual levels of enforcement as well. The report goes on to say that "the absence of meaningful consequences for failure to comply … not only prevents the regulatory scheme from fulfilling its declared objectives; it also breeds further noncompliance."

We will make our own enquiries into whether these conclusions remain valid today, but whatever the outcome, it seems clear that there is no 'copy paste' solution for Europe, especially when the US system does not actually provide as much information and coverage as the one we have designed ourselves. I do not of course want to prejudge the outcome of our review, and only when we have examined all the issues will we be able to determine what improvements or adjustments should be made, and how. We also remain hopeful that the Council will join the joint register – they will certainly be able to contribute to the review should they wish to do so.

Although I believe that the joint register is both reasonable and proportionate, I am also sure that there is room for improvement through stricter compliance requirements, which the joint secretariat will apply now that the first year has passed. I am also glad that the number of registrations has passed a critical mass, and that the numbers keep rising.

Transparency facilitates scrutiny and hence accountability. Despite recurrent criticism and even active campaigns fuelled by some organisations, I believe that our efforts in the area of transparency are among the most comprehensive in the world. The register is just one of these efforts – many others run by the Commission can be found on our transparency portal."

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