Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

EU parliament should befriend transparency

  • The EU parliament initiated the transparency register as early as 1996. (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

A few days ago, an NGO representative expressed her concerns about the way the European Parliament was dealing with the European Commission’s proposal for a revised inter-institutional agreement on a “mandatory transparency register”.

The proposal was submitted by the EU commission on 28 September 2016 and aimed at including the Council of the EU, where representatives of member states sit, as a new partner within the framework.

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Following the commission's proposal, the EU parliament’s Conference of Presidents entrusted us, as the responsible lead negotiators - supported by a contact group composed of one MEP from each political group - with developing a draft negotiating mandate.

We organised five contact group meetings, where detailed discussions provided the opportunity for all political groups to give their input and ideas. It led to the endorsement of a balanced text on 11 April this year.

We enriched our deliberations by means of a half-day meeting between the contact group and the involved NGO representatives - including Nina Katzemich from the website LobbyControl, and others from organisations such as Transparency International, Civil Society Europe and Corporate Europe Observatory.

We listened carefully to their concerns, many of which we had already incorporated into our work, such as the necessity to enlarge the definition of lobbying and to include an independent observer in the management structure of the transparency register.

We also discussed how we to pursue the negotiations with the EU commission and the council in order to get those concerns taken on board.

Instead of the expected swift adoption of the mandate, which would signal the parliament’s readiness to enter into negotiations, we were deeply troubled to find that the item had been taken off the agenda of the Conference of Presidents on successive occasions.

Horse-trading

It appeared that some MEPs used procedural manoeuvres and political horse-trading to achieve repeated postponements of the adoption of the mandate, even though a large majority in parliament supported its content.

It seems that it is sometimes those who believe themselves to be on the path of righteousness, who are most willing to misuse our system of procedures to score cheap political points.

We found it disturbing that some wilfully ignored parliament’s power to determine its own internal organisation.

It has also saddened us to see that some of those who claim to be at the forefront of stemming the tide of populism, do not seem to mind riding on that very same tide when it serves their own political ends.

However, we were glad to see that the Conference of Presidents finally adopted the mandate two weeks ago on 15 June, in the very same form that had been proposed by the contact group.

Following its adoption, the mandate was immediately published on the EU parliament’s website.

Regarding the free and independent mandate of MEPs - enshrined in EU primary law - it is noteworthy that the independence of elected representatives is a cornerstone of a representative democracy and a principle this is not easily dismissed.

Therefore, any limitation on MEPs in the exercise of their free mandate must be proportionate and cannot, for example, unduly restrict his or her right to seek information.

Moreover, a principle enshrined in primary law cannot be altered by secondary law, let alone by an inter-institutional agreement.

The mandate adopted on 15 June is based on a long line of parliament’s decisions regarding its relations with interest representatives.

It reflects the position of a broad majority of MEPs and it constitutes a solid base for negotiations on a significant improvement to the current transparency register and a widening of its scope.

Negotiating framework

The mandate should be understood as a framework for the negotiations.

Parliament’s position will continue to be adapted as the negotiations progress. Once the negotiations are concluded, parliament will adopt follow-up decisions with respect to its internal organisation, in order to implement the new inter‑institutional agreement.

But the European Parliament still remains committed to pushing for a transparency regulation that would go beyond an inter-institutional agreement and lay down the relevant provisions on transparency and the register in secondary law.

One should not forget the progress that parliament has achieved so far in this field. It initiated the Transparency Register as early as 1996, as well as a Code of Conduct with a commitment for registered lobbyists to act in accordance with high ethical standards.

Parliament is, and remains, the most open EU institution, which can be seen with the web-streaming of its meetings and the ability for citizens to visit all of its buildings.

Furthermore, parliament decided that registration on the transparency register was to be made a requirement to be invited as a speaker at committee hearings and to receive a long-term access badge for its premises.

It also put in place a voluntary legislative footprint last year, and it encourages its MEPs to meet only with registered organisations.

Katzemich considers the EU commission to have made a big step in 2015 by publishing meetings of commissioners, heads of cabinets and directors‑general.

Certainly, this is true. However, this measure was decided by the commission with a view to its own internal organisation and cannot be easily translated to other institutions such as EU parliament or the council, both of which have a different set-up.

Furthermore, the commission’s system is not without its flaws and has room for improvement, as Transparency International and other organisations regularly report.

As the EU parliament's lead negotiators, we are particularly committed to getting the council on board and to adding significant value compared to the current framework.

Three principles

A new register should encompass the following three principles.

First, the widest possible scope of application for EU institutions and other bodies, including meaningful participation of the council.

Next, a comprehensive and clear framework, without weakening the current system, for the regulation of interest representation activities.

Finally, structures and resources that guarantee effective implementation.

One of the main issues is that the new inter-institutional agreement provides a framework for coordination among the EU institutions, while at the same time fully respecting their different competences and prerogatives.

The mandate

The approach we have developed in our mandate would allow for:

- The full respect of MEPs' independent mandate.

- An inclusive transparency policy for all types of interest representative, as with the current register that features over 11200 registered interest groups from all over the world.

- The possibility to maintain the wider definition of lobbying, covering both direct and indirect interest representation (as with the current system).

- The full respect for each institutions’ needs, e.g. in the case of parliament as an open house but also with the need to know, for security reasons, who is coming in and why.

- More flexibility in respect to the EU institutions’ roles and structures (parliament cannot simply duplicate rules that were designed for the commission).

- Better quality information on the database – making the register more reliable as a source of information for the institutions themselves and for the general public.

The quality of the new system will depend on how far the council can be convinced to match the parliament’s and commission’s commitment to transparency.

We would therefore advise to look at the whole picture and analyse the situation comprehensively, especially with a view to scrutinising the council’s approach.

It takes time to change long-standing practices, but we are fully committed to forge ahead, knowing that a pragmatic and constructive approach will yield the best results.

Transparency certainly is one important aspect of ensuring citizens’ trust in the EU institutions. But it is not the only one. Keeping true to the facts is another.

Sylvie Guillaume is a vice-president of the European Parliament, and Danuta Huebner is the chair of the constitutional affairs committee

Correction: The article's footnote originally said that Danuta Huebner is the chair of the foreign affairs committee, when in fact, she is the chair of the constitutional affairs committee

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.

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 lawyers support mandatory lobby register

Big lobbying groups representing lawyer bars, consultants, and EU public affairs professionals all support plans to set up a mandatory joint lobbying register in Brussels.

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.

Who to blame when you can't blame Brussels?

Lawyers at the European Parliament and the Council of the EU are finding ways to work around renewed transparency initiatives. The lack of leadership and political will makes the task for greater transparency even more difficult.

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