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28th Sep 2020

EU institutions use 'data privacy' to stymie transparency

  • Junior officials' meetings with lobbyists are kept out of sight on privacy grounds (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has accused the EU insitutions of being too ready to use the data protection "shield" as an argument against being more transparent.

"Data protection is viewed as a major shield against transparency in these institutions. I see it on so many levels," she said at a public discussion on Brussels lobbying on Wednesday (11 May).

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She noted that while in some member states a distinction is made between an official acting in their private capacity and acting as a public servant, "that distinction is far too blurred" in Brussels.

Her remarks were directed at EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, in charge of transparency, who has been resisting calls - often using the privacy argument - to extend recently-implemented transparency rules to all commission officials.

The rules currently prevent only the top tier of commission officials (about 300 from a total of 33,000 staff) from meeting any lobbyists not on the lobbyist register.

O'Reilly said she can understand "to a point" not wanting to expose junior officials to the public eye, "but that doesn’t stop the EU commission from saying: 'Junior official you can only meet people on the transparency register. We won’t put your name out there, but that is the rule'."

She also urged the commission not to view progress on transparency by comparison to the European Parliament and the EU Council, which represents member states and which is generally viewed as the transparency laggard of the three institutions.

"They have to take a leadership role and things will trickle down from that" she said, adding that EU law-making is so complex and that so few citizens are really aware of how it works that the EU needs "very high standards" of transparency, "higher than any of the member states".

Transparency and the role of lobbyists in EU law-making has become an increasingly hot topic in Brussels in recent years, with the scope of legislation increasing, but with the process remaining opaque.

The current EU commission shook up the system with its new 'meeting lobbyist' rules, but critics say its lobbyist register needs to be mandatory to be effective. They often point out that law firms - among the most skilled and high-powered lobbyists - are not obliged to register.

Estimates on the number of lobbyists in Brussels run from around 15,000 to as many as 30,000, but Carl Dolan from Transparency International (TI), pointed out there are only about 7,000 lobbyists registered.

This compares to 12,000 in Washington, where registration is mandatory, with both capitals seen as roughly equivalent when it comes to legislative importance.

The voluntary/mandatory difference results in a large discrepancy in the reported spending on lobbying in both capitals.

A lack of transparency also has practical effects. Looking at the current civil backlash against the proposed EU-US free trade agreement, Dolan noted that the level of distrust arises from the secrecy surrounding the talks.

He said TI had to make several requests to find out which national officials were sitting on the trade policy committee and "actually scrutinising this very important initiative".

Timmermans, for his part, said that his general aim for lobbying "is to know exactly what sort of influence is being exerted".

On extending the rules he said he would "monitor closely" to see if there is a shift towards lobbying of lower-ranked commission officials

But O'Reilly, who has made transparency of the EU institutions one of her main topics, indicated that she would maintain pressure on the commission.

Aside from wanting EU officials to have lobby-awareness training, she also wants the commission to set up a public register of senior commission staff who move to the private sector, the so-called "revolving door".

"The proposal that I have made is having this online register of senior oficials - in possesion of a lot of information - who move into private sector. That should be open to the public gaze and I will certainly be looking at that as an indication of just how serious this commission is in relation to transparency," she said.

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