Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Opinion

Are MEPs too 'free' to be accountable?

  • The commission proposed a new lobbying transparency register in September 2016, but does its proposal go far enough? (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission proposed to reform the EU Lobbying Transparency Register in September 2016, promising to make it mandatory across EU institutions.

But, when it comes to lobbying transparency, the ball is now in the European Parliament's court.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

On Wednesday (6 June), the parliament’s "contact group" – the two MEP negotiators Danuta Hübner and Sylvie Guillaume, plus members from each political group – will discuss their draft negotiating mandate for the register one more time.

If nothing changes from the current draft, it will be a meaningless paper, lacking any solid commitment from MEPs to introduce new incentives for lobbyists to join the transparency register.

Traditionally, the parliament had been a staunch supporter of a robust transparency register. It was the EU parliament, and not the commission, that first introduced some conditions on lobbyists: the obligation to register to obtain an access badge was agreed by the parliament back in 2010.

Moreover, MEPs have always emphasised the need for a binding register, backed by the force of law, in their negotiations with the commission. Such a register would be binding on lobbyists and allow the institutions to impose sanctions on them in cases of non-compliance.

But the commission was far less aspirant.

Instead, the EU executive body proposed an inter-institutional agreement – which would bind the institutions, but not lobbyists – based on a set of incentives to get lobbyists to register and comply with the rules.

As a first step, in 2014, EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker introduced the rule that commissioners, their cabinet members, and directors-general should only meet with registered lobbyists, and must publish all their meetings online.

This sounded good, but it had a massive loophole: the remaining 30,000+ commission officials were left unaffected by these rules.

No meaningful commitment

There seems to be a consensus now between the three institutions about this low-key, unambitious, incentive-based approach.

We disagree with it and will keep up the pressure for a legally-binding register in the longer-term, as this is the only way to make the register – with its flawed data and massive enforcement problem – more effective.

If the institutions are serious, however, about increasing lobbying transparency via their soft approach, they will have to take stock of their own responsibilities and really put strong incentives in place.

But sadly, none of the three institutions seem willing to strengthen their requirements in their own contact with lobbyists.

The parliament's attitude is particularly disappointing, considering its prior record.

Back in December 2016, a majority of MEPs voted to adopt the systematic practice of meeting only with registered lobbyists. That was a step forward, but is widely interpreted as non-binding on MEPs. Lobbyists wishing to avoid scrutiny would easily be able to evade such a voluntary rule, which not all MEPs apply.

Many MEPs across the centre-right, centre-left and liberal groups now argue that they cannot aim for a clear and enforceable ban on MEPs meeting unregistered lobbyists, as it would be incompatible with the "free mandate" principle enshrined in EU primary law.

The free mandate principle guarantees that MEPs can vote and speak independently from any instructions – from their voters, or their parties, and so on. The argument goes that this also implies the freedom to meet whomever they feel they need to, to stay informed.

Unconvincing argument

This does not sound very convincing to us. We understand that independence from any external instruction is a fundamental principle of democracy. But there are other important values and principles too – transparency being one of them.

Does the "free mandate" really prevent MEPs from introducing accountability and transparency obligations?

Would asking lobbyists to register for a meeting and play by the rules really be such an attack on the freedom of MEPs?

And just to reject a red herring argument: meetings with citizens from MEPs’ constituencies, or random encounters, are not and have never been covered by the register. Meetings with whistle-blowers or others who, for reasons of personal security, would not want their name in the public domain, could also easily be exempt.

And if a clear ban is really asking too much: why not simply publish MEPs’ meetings with lobbyists online? Then the public could check who MEPs are meeting. This would be compatible with the "free mandate" of MEPs and, in our era of electronic calendars, would not really pose too big of an administrative burden, either.

Yet the idea of becoming more transparent and accountable to their electorate seems to be scary to many MEPs, and is being considered far more as a risk than as an opportunity.

This is a particularly baffling position for MEPs to take, especially when considering the distance between the work of the EU parliament and the home constituencies, which is often reflected in the poor turnouts in European elections.

We have witnessed a frustratingly reclusive attitude through the whole discussion phase of the mandate.

Civil society was only invited, reluctantly, to contribute to this important discussion after an open letter to the parliament was signed by 100 civil society organisations and the mandate had been kept secret from us.

Much-needed commitment

MEPs must stop hiding behind legalistic excuses and commit to something meaningful.

It's time for MEPs to leave their defensive mode and to stop hiding behind legalistic excuses.

Both of the MEP negotiators (Hübner and Guillaume) have signed two different pledges on lobbying transparency in the last European elections, as did many other MEPs.

It is time for those politicians to live up to their pledges and to persuade their colleagues to implement a clear ban on MEPs meeting with unregistered lobbyists and to ensure that MEPs publish their lobby meetings.

If the parliament does not act, MEPs will lose the moral high-ground vis-a-vis the other institutions in the debate on EU lobbying transparency.

And the result: the EU lobbying register will remain a very flawed transparency tool.

Nina Katzemich is an EU-campaigner for a German lobbying watchdog, LobbyControl, and a member of the ALTER-EU steering committee.

MEPs agree crackdown on lobbying

Starting next year, MEPs will no longer be able to work as paid lobbyists trying to influence the European Parliament.

EU commission presents 'realistic' lobbying rules

The EU executive called for more stringent regulation of interest representatives trying to influence EU decision making. Critics say the 'transparency revolution' is being blocked by the European Parliament and EU member states.

Lobbying transparency enhances MEPs' freedom

At a time when citizens expect an unprecedented level of accountability from their elected representatives, senior MEPs use their ‘free mandate’ to justify opposing new lobbying transparency rules.

Column / Brexit Briefing

The return of the chlorinated chicken

Britain has only just started on the path towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, but you can already see the same all-too-familiar disagreements.

Stop blaming Trump for Poland’s democratic crisis

If you were to judge events purely on the US media's headlines, you would be forgiven for wondering if the Polish government had anything to do with its recent controversial judicial reforms.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy