Monday

26th Jun 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.

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.

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.

News in Brief

  1. Seasoned finance minister takes over Dutch coalition talks
  2. British PM closes government deal with Northern Irish party
  3. Merkel on collision course with US at G20 summit
  4. Schulz outlines German election strategy, hits out at Merkel
  5. Berlusconi's party sees comeback in Italian local votes
  6. Low turnout in Albanian election set to mandate EU future
  7. Merkel and Macron hold symbolic joint press conference
  8. Juncker has 'no' clear idea of kind of Brexit UK wants

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Malta EU 2017Conservation of Atlantic Tunas: International Measures Become EU Law
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan Statin Therapy Interfere With a Physically Active Lifestyle?
  3. EPSUOn Public Services Day, Stop Austerity! Workers Need a Pay Rise!
  4. EGBAOnline Gambling: The EU Court Rejects Closed Licensing Regimes In Member States
  5. World VisionFaces of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow: Join the Debate on Violence Against Girls - 29 June
  6. ECR GroupThe EU Must Better Protect Industry from Unfair Competition
  7. Malta EU 2017Better Protection for Workers From Cancer-Causing Substances
  8. EPSUAfter 9 Years of Austerity Europe's Public Sector Workers Deserve a Pay Rise!
  9. Dialogue PlatformGlobalised Religions and the Dialogue Imperative. Join the Debate!
  10. UNICEFEU Trust Fund Contribution to UNICEF's Syria Crisis Response Reaches Nearly €200 Million
  11. EUSEW17Bringing Buildings Into the Circular Economy. Discuss at EU Sustainable Energy Week
  12. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCan an Ideal Body Weight Lead to Premature Death?

Latest News

  1. China's slow foray into Central and Eastern Europe
  2. Estonia presidency and Google fine This WEEK
  3. UK previews offer on EU nationals' rights
  4. EU approves rescue of Italian banks
  5. Cohesion policy for a stronger Europe
  6. Cheap meat is a bigger problem for climate and health
  7. Ministers to reject minimum parking spaces for electric cars
  8. Macron’s investment screening idea watered down by leaders

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Charges: What Does It Entail?
  2. World VisionWorld Refugee Day, a Dark Reminder of the Reality of Children on the Move
  3. Dialogue PlatformMuslims Have Unique Responsibility to Fight Terror: Opinon From Fethullah Gülen
  4. EUSEW17Check out This Useful Infographic on How to Stay Sustainable and Energy Efficient.
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Criticises the Juncker Plan's Implementation
  6. UNICEF1 in 5 Children in Rich Countries Lives in Relative Income Poverty, 1 in 8 Faces Food Insecurity
  7. International Partnership for Human Rights26 NGOs Call on Interpol Not to Intervene Versus Azerbaijani Human Rights Defenders
  8. Malta EU 2017Significant Boost in Financing for SMEs and Entrepreneurs Under New Agreement
  9. World VisionYoung People Rise up as EU Signs Consensus for Development at EU Development Days
  10. ILGA-EuropeLGBTI Activists and Businesses Fighting Inequality Together
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Prime Ministers Respond to Trump on Paris Agreement