Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

New EU lobbyist register not mandatory, critics say

  • Hungary and Cyprus are likely to vote against having the council join the transparency register (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

A new agreement on EU lobbying transparency is being billed as mandatory - but critics say otherwise.

After almost five years of negotiations, the agreement on an expanded joint-transparency register was announced earlier this week.

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"What was promised was a mandatory system - we don't have that," Vitor Teixeira from Transparency International EU, an NGO, told EUobserver on Wednesday (16 December).

An unpublished draft text of the agreement is indeed entitled "mandatory transparency register."

But in reality, the institutions can themselves broadly apply whatever rules they want in the agreement - which is set to go live sometime next year.

The register is a database of lobbyists seeking to influence European Union decision-making, and has covered the European Parliament and the European Commission for several years.

The idea is that only those registered can hold meetings with EU officials. However, it comes with numerous loopholes, and is marred by inaccurate and incomplete data.

Of the three EU institutions, the European Commission is the most strict.

Only registered lobbyists can meet with European Commissioners and their immediate subordinates.

"The only meetings or discussions we are not registering are phone calls," said Vera Jourova, a European Commission vice-president dealing with transparency.

The European Parliament recommends MEPs only meet with registered lobbyists.

However, there is no obligation. And their assistants and other staff are exempt.

'Really, really weak'

The latest addition is the Council, representing member states.

It will now join the register, alongside the parliament and commission. But here, too, the register has limits - and fails to cover some of the most obvious lobbying targets.

Those targets are the member state embassies to the European Union. Also known as permanent representations, they are lobbying hubs.

The Dutch permanent representative to the EU, for example, held over 1,000 meetings with lobbyists over a span of two years.

But these are exempt from the register.

"It is really, really weak," said Vicky Cann from Corporate Europe Observatory, a pro-transparency NGO.

She noted lobbyists prefer meeting policy officers at the embassies.

"They [the officers] get multiple requests for meetings every week, and it is really at the level where we need open things up," she pointed out.

And under the terms of the agreement, permanent representatives would only have to adhere to the register once every 13.5 years.

That is because the agreement applies to the rotating EU presidencies.

Each member state takes on the role of the EU presidency for six months, before handing it over to another of the 26 member states.

Currently, it is the German EU presidency, which will now be followed by the Portuguese.

The agreement says permanent representatives of the incoming and current EU presidencies are asked to meet with only registered lobbyists.

"So basically it is one year out of 13.5 years they commit to under the transparency rules. and it is a voluntary mechanism," noted Transparency International's Teixeira.

Michael Roth is Germany's minister for Europe and negotiated the text on behalf the Council.

He said lobbyists will also have to register if they want to meet the Council's secretary general or have access to council events.

"Now I can go home and say the European Union has delivered," he told reporters.

But there are misgivings, even from MEPs.

"He isn't publishing anything, we don't know what he has been up to," said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, of Michael Roth.

"The Council remains the 'black box'," said Freund.

He also complained that the European Commission itself fell short because unregistered lobbyists are still able to meet lower-level staff, like policy officers.

The European Parliament is not much better due, in part, to the internal wrangling by secretary-general Klause Welle and vice-president Rainer Wieland.

Wieland is a staunch advocate of the so-called 'freedom of the mandate', an ethos that gives MEPs wide discretion to do or meet with whoever they want.

The principle remains intact in the agreement, meaning MEPs are exempt.

But so too are assistants and other parliament staff, posing serious questions on accountability.

And accountability is weak in the European Parliament.

Last year it passed rules requiring senior MEPs to pro-actively publish their meetings with lobbyists.

Yet only around 50 percent actually do so.

When pressed on the issue, the European Parliament's lead negotiator on transparency, attributed it to a learning curve for new MEPs.

"You can't forget that we have a new parliament with more than 65 percent of new colleagues," said Polish centre-right MEP Danuta Maria Hubner.

"Some of them, not all of them, are seasoned politicians," she added.

Romanian centre-right MEP Iuliu Winkler has been an MEP since 2009. Now, he is the European Parliament's lead negotiator on China. He hasn't published any meetings, as required.

When asked why, he did not respond.

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