Sunday

26th Feb 2017

Opinion

'Inside EU knowledge' - an affront to transparency

  • Seap - it's now what you do, it's the way that you do it (Photo: EUobserver)

EUobserver has reported that up to 70 percent of the time spent by public affairs companies is on the monitoring of EU issues and that sometimes lobby firms represent questionable interests.

The Society of European Affairs Professionals, Seap, established in 1997, is the recognised organisation of lobbyists operating in trade associations, corporations, consultancies and representative bodies in Brussels. SEAP encourages the highest standards of professionalism for European affairs activity and promotes self-regulation of the profession.

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As its vice-president, I take issue with one of the central tenets of the EUobserver article, which seems to suggest there is something wrong in wheedling out information from the EU institutions. There isn't so long as it's done properly. The article's headline on "inside knowledge" worries me.

European affairs professionals are a vital part of the democratic process, acting as a link between on the one hand business and civil society, and on the other, European policy makers. It is their role to find out what's going on in the minds of policy makers, to analyse, assess implication and then to react.

That process of information gathering has to be done correctly. This is why Seap members adhere to an ethical code, a code which covers both transparency and conduct. The code goes far beyond the Joint European Commission/European Parliament register code.

A comparison shows the Seap code mirrors the EU code's nine articles and adds a further seven.

While both codes require transparency, Seap's seeks to define how you act upon it. It says members must be "be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation or company and the interest they represent."

Moreover - and crucially - it requires honesty. It says they must "neither intentionally misrepresent their status nor the nature of their inquiries to the EU institutions nor create any false impression in relation thereto."

Seap members are also required to "act with honesty and integrity at all times" - a relatively broad demand.

But the code is not just about acting perfectly. It recognises the way things are. It recognises, as does the EUobserver article, that information may be given in confidence in advance of a more public release.

Again, I contend that this is in the public interest, as often officials want to test ideas with those likely to be affected by them before speaking out to the world or indeed the media.

For the most part, the typical commission official and, certainly, the typical MEP is a generalist. The specialist expertise lies elsewhere in the industry or interested sector to be affected by the policy. The early testing of ideas with experts is wise.

How the lobbyists deal with that insider info is key.

And it is covered by article four of our code. The member must "honour confidential information and embargoes and always abide by the rules and conventions for the obtaining, distribution and release of all EU documentation."

And of course, the lobbyist must recognise that this information per se is not to be inappropriately exploited. They must "not sell for profit to third parties copies of documents obtained from the EU institutions."

The lobbyists may sell his analysis of that information and what flows from there, but not the actual document itself.

EUobserver rightly raised the issue of conflicts of interest. These can be real and should always be addressed. Seap's code advocates first the avoidance of conflicts, then their disclosure and - all importantly - their swift resolution.

How one deals with a conflict is the real test.

Any code, even one as robust as Seap's, is only as good as the extent to which it is complied with. Like any good code-owner, Seap operates a compliance and complaints procedure, with the sanction of expulsion for serious breaches.

EU officials are public servants. Their information gathering and release is a public duty. The duty befalling all of us is to access that information, inform those affected, and, if it's a really bad idea, do something about it.

"Inside EU knowledge” is uncomfortably close to public sector secrecy. For the most part that is best avoided.

The writer is vice-president of the Brussels-based Seap group

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