25th Oct 2016

Transparency Register: keep it voluntary, add incentives

The Society of European Affairs Professionals, SEAP, broadly welcomes the clarifications and changes proposed to the Transparency Register by the joint working group of the Commission & European Parliament.

There are some helpful clarifications in line with calls made by SEAP as well as some changes which may need further study. SEAP welcomes the endorsement to add incentives for voluntary registration.

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Incentives are key. We had proposed linking registration to speaker engagement, events and participation in expert groups. It is good to see the working group strongly endorsed this. It is a pity however that there is a recommendation which reverses who should be proactive in finding out if an organisation is registered.

Is the Register’s Code good enough?

SEAP understands the call by other organisations such as ALTER-EU about the EU’s transparency register code of conduct but believes ALTER-EU have missed the point.

ALTER-EU is arguing for a stronger code that broadly addresses the behaviour of lobbyists. This is not the rationale behind the EU’s code which is all about the relationship between a lobbyist and the EU. It is however the rationale behind SEAP’s code.

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 the objectives of policy makers, to analyse, assess implication, and then to react.

That process of information gathering and using that information has to be done correctly. This is why SEAP members adhere to an ethical code.

Dr. Susanna Di Feliciantonio, SEAP President explains: “There is a difference between the objectives of the EU register – that of transparency, and the objectives of a self-regulatory code of conduct. SEAP’s code is about lobbyists coming together and saying we will act ethically. Transparency is but one part of that ethical behaviour.”

The SEAP code of ethical conduct goes far beyond the basic transparency of the EU register’s code. A side by side comparison shows the SEAP code mirrors the EU code’s nine articles, and adds a further seven.

The EU code’s articles are about the relationship between a lobbyist and the EU. For example, article a) is about identification “by name” and “by the interests …they represent”. Article c) is about not claiming “any formal relationship with the EU”. Article e) is about not selling free documents issued by the EU. This is a code of transparent relationships.

The SEAP code, is about the ethical behaviour of a lobbyist. Articles unique to the SEAP code include article 1) “act with honesty and integrity at all times”, article 2) “maintain the highest standards of professionalism”, and article 3 “ensure the truth and accuracy of all statements”.

Moreover, the SEAP code contains a strong article on conflicts. Article 5 calls for the avoiding of conflicts, and their swift disclosure and resolution when they do arise. This is a code of behaviour.

SEAP does not believe it is the role of the EU to control the behaviour of lobbyists. This is a role for lobbyists themselves. This is self-regulation. This is SEAP’s job. Professionals who are serious about business ethics demonstrate it by joining SEAP.

What of the Register and incoming MEPs?

Over the coming years the new crop of MEPs being elected in May this year will meet with numerous lobbyists. SEAP would welcome any conversation that starts with them asking any visitor: “Are you in the Transparency Register? And there are two other good questions to ask.

“Are you a member of SEAP?” “Are you a signatory of a code of ethical behaviour?”

These questions have relevance. If ever there is a transgression by a SEAP member, the MEP (and indeed a Commission official) has standing to make a direct complaint to the organisation. The complaint will be investigated and, if upheld, meaningful action will be taken.

Transparency, incentives for voluntary registration, and ethical behaviour: that’s the synergy between the Register and SEAP.

Philip Sheppard is Vice-President Society of European Affairs Professionals, SEAP, the recognised organisation of all EU public affairs professionals including those operating in trade associations, corporations, consultancies and other representative bodies

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