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18th Aug 2018

EU commission presents 'realistic' lobbying rules

The European Commission has called for stricter rules on lobby groups, amid controversies on former top officials having gone through the so-called "revolving door" into jobs with big business.

Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans unveiled the initiative for a mandatory lobby register on Wednesday (28 September), saying there is urgent need to rebuild trust in EU law-making.

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”Citizens have the right to know who tries to influence EU officials,” Timmermans said.

”We propose a simple rule: no meeting with decision-makers without prior registration. Through the register, the public will see who is lobbying, who they represent and how much they spend.”

The current record only applies to the commission and parliament.

It lacks control mechanisms for checking that the information provided is correct. Transparency International (TI) last year discovered that half of the entries contained false, outdated or misleading facts.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker vowed upon his appointment in 2014 to improve the system.

Yannick Bendel, TI’s EU policy officer, told EUobserver that there were some upsides to celebrate after Wednesday's announcement.

”There is a clear push to improve the quality of the data registered. We are happy they want to increase the resources of the secretariat managing the register and do more to verify the entries,” he said.

But he said the proposal stopped short of a ”transparency revolution”, which was particularly disappointing given that lobby organisations themselves - such as the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) - were also asking for stronger rules.

The ghosts of Barroso and Kroes

Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), another campaign group, said it was shameful the commission did not go further given the circumstances.

Commissioners are taking flak for their predecessors: former president Jose Manuel Barroso who landed a job at US investment bank Goldman Sachs; and former anti-trust boss Neelie Kroes who failed to cut short her ties to the business world while in office.

Juncker has frustrated critics with a seemingly laid-back response to the scandals, but he referred the Barroso case to an internal ethics committee after the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly asked him questions.

One of Juncker's first steps upon entering office was to impose what he called ”the most transparent rules in the world” on his team - members of the commission college and directors-general - who have been banned from meeting with unregistered lobbyists.

"The commission leads by example," Timmermans said.

But CEO regretted the proposal didn’t extend beyond top level officials the obligation to verify whom they met with.

”The vast majority of lobby meetings will still be off the radar and unregistered lobbyists can go about their business unchecked. What the commission puts forward is still a long way from a genuinely mandatory register that really boosts transparency,” CEO wrote in a statement.

Timmermans told journalists rank-and-file officials should be given the benefit of trust that they do their job properly.

Blame Council and Parliament

But TI’s Bendel said ”everyone knows” that Brussels lobbying is often technical and takes place on lower levels.

He added, however, that the main culprits of continued opacity were found in the parliament and the council, which represents EU member states.

”National governments have clearly indicated that any proposal that would include their permanent representations in Brussels is not be up for debate,” Bendel said.

The ambassador and deputy ambassador of the country holding the council's rotating presidency and the country taking over, as well as the secretary-general and directors-general of the council, would in future have to make sure that the interest representatives they meet were registered, according to Wednesday's proposal.

Officials from other member states would not be subjected to the rules.

The parliament, meanwhile, just postponed indefinitely a vote on a transparency report by MEP Sven Giegold.

The German green had proposed, among other, a legislative footprint to trace outsider influence on lawmaking, a ban on second jobs for MEPs, greater disclosure on the money they earned beyond their parliamentary salary and stronger internal oversight committee on MEPs who break code of conduct rules.

Bendel recognised the parliament and council were reluctant to go forward but said it was a shame the commission gave up on its progressive role.

”They have, of course, talked to the other institutions and checked where they stand,” he said. ”In that sense, this proposal could be called realistic.”

But the proposal is likely to be watered-down even further in negotiations with the parliament and council.

Ethics drive at EU parliament hits a wall

Plans to increase transparency at the European Parliament have been postponed, in a move likely to result in weaker proposals when it goes to a vote.

Green MEPs launch EUleaks

Green MEPs have launched a secure platform to protect those disclosing problems in EU decision-making. Responsibility for publishing materials will fall upon MEPs.

Investigation

How the EU cosied up to the defence lobby

The EU has allowed its defence and security policies to be shaped by powerful lobbyists, many of whom are linked to firms that win lucrative contracts, an investigation shows.

Opinion

Are MEPs too 'free' to be accountable?

The European Parliament is currently fine-tuning its negotiating position on the Commission's proposal from September 2016 for a mandatory transparency register. Sadly, so far it seems to prefer empty statements to bold action.

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