Sunday

27th Nov 2022

EU institutions use 'data privacy' to stymie transparency

  • Junior officials' meetings with lobbyists are kept out of sight on privacy grounds (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has accused the EU insitutions of being too ready to use the data protection "shield" as an argument against being more transparent.

"Data protection is viewed as a major shield against transparency in these institutions. I see it on so many levels," she said at a public discussion on Brussels lobbying on Wednesday (11 May).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

She noted that while in some member states a distinction is made between an official acting in their private capacity and acting as a public servant, "that distinction is far too blurred" in Brussels.

Her remarks were directed at EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, in charge of transparency, who has been resisting calls - often using the privacy argument - to extend recently-implemented transparency rules to all commission officials.

The rules currently prevent only the top tier of commission officials (about 300 from a total of 33,000 staff) from meeting any lobbyists not on the lobbyist register.

O'Reilly said she can understand "to a point" not wanting to expose junior officials to the public eye, "but that doesn’t stop the EU commission from saying: 'Junior official you can only meet people on the transparency register. We won’t put your name out there, but that is the rule'."

She also urged the commission not to view progress on transparency by comparison to the European Parliament and the EU Council, which represents member states and which is generally viewed as the transparency laggard of the three institutions.

"They have to take a leadership role and things will trickle down from that" she said, adding that EU law-making is so complex and that so few citizens are really aware of how it works that the EU needs "very high standards" of transparency, "higher than any of the member states".

Transparency and the role of lobbyists in EU law-making has become an increasingly hot topic in Brussels in recent years, with the scope of legislation increasing, but with the process remaining opaque.

The current EU commission shook up the system with its new 'meeting lobbyist' rules, but critics say its lobbyist register needs to be mandatory to be effective. They often point out that law firms - among the most skilled and high-powered lobbyists - are not obliged to register.

Estimates on the number of lobbyists in Brussels run from around 15,000 to as many as 30,000, but Carl Dolan from Transparency International (TI), pointed out there are only about 7,000 lobbyists registered.

This compares to 12,000 in Washington, where registration is mandatory, with both capitals seen as roughly equivalent when it comes to legislative importance.

The voluntary/mandatory difference results in a large discrepancy in the reported spending on lobbying in both capitals.

A lack of transparency also has practical effects. Looking at the current civil backlash against the proposed EU-US free trade agreement, Dolan noted that the level of distrust arises from the secrecy surrounding the talks.

He said TI had to make several requests to find out which national officials were sitting on the trade policy committee and "actually scrutinising this very important initiative".

Timmermans, for his part, said that his general aim for lobbying "is to know exactly what sort of influence is being exerted".

On extending the rules he said he would "monitor closely" to see if there is a shift towards lobbying of lower-ranked commission officials

But O'Reilly, who has made transparency of the EU institutions one of her main topics, indicated that she would maintain pressure on the commission.

Aside from wanting EU officials to have lobby-awareness training, she also wants the commission to set up a public register of senior commission staff who move to the private sector, the so-called "revolving door".

"The proposal that I have made is having this online register of senior oficials - in possesion of a lot of information - who move into private sector. That should be open to the public gaze and I will certainly be looking at that as an indication of just how serious this commission is in relation to transparency," she said.

Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Ukraine and a looming economic recession is set to dominate the upcoming Swedish EU presidency, which takes over at the start of next year. Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Lars Danielsson, laid out some of its priorities.

French official accused of conflict over EU fish lobby job

A senior French official is being accused of conflicts of interest for spearheading a leading role in Europeche, a fishing-industry lobby group based in Brussels. The hire comes as the EU Commission threatens a lawsuit against France over fishing.

Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'

Ukraine and a looming economic recession is set to dominate the upcoming Swedish EU presidency, which takes over at the start of next year. Sweden's ambassador to the EU, Lars Danielsson, laid out some of its priorities.

News in Brief

  1. 'Pro-Kremlin group' in EU Parliament cyberattack
  2. Ukraine will decide on any peace talks, Borrell says
  3. Germany blocks sale of chip factory to Chinese subsidiary
  4. Strikes and protests over cost-of-living grip Greece, Belgium
  5. Liberal MEPs want Musk quizzed in parliament
  6. Bulgarian policeman shot dead at Turkish border
  7. 89 people allowed to disembark in Italy, aid group says
  8. UN chief tells world: Cooperate on climate or perish

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  3. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  4. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  5. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  6. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos

Latest News

  1. Sweden says 'no' to EU asylum relocation pledges
  2. The 'proof' problem with EU sanctions — and how to fix it
  3. The EU gas cap: will the bottle ever be 'uncorked'?
  4. Enough talk, only rights can eliminate patriarchal violence
  5. Swedish EU presidency: 'Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine'
  6. EU Commission to keep Hungary's EU funds in limbo
  7. 'No substance' price ceiling for gas leaves everyone disgruntled
  8. Paying consumers who save most energy could tame gas prices

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  2. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  4. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  6. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us