Transparent advocacy leads to better legislation
Political advocacy, or lobbying if you like, is of paramount importance to ensuring that political decision-makers understand the implications of the legislation they adopt. The EU’s political system is a very open one where most decision-makers, be it civil servants in the European Commission or politicians in the European Parliament, appreciate input from external stakeholders and are open to facts and arguments. This input makes for better legislation.
But advocacy must be transparent and ethical to have the required effect. The EU Transparency Register is one step in the right direction.
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It is unusual these days to see campaigns, websites, grassroots groups, or events where it is not immediately apparent who is the sponsor. The debate surrounding the register is for the most part a healthy one which has made most stakeholders on both sides very aware of transparency.
But the register could be even better.
The European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association, EPACA, which represents the major part of the Brussels consultancy community, would like to see a mandatory EU Transparency Register. We have been a vocal supporter of the register since the beginning, and have worked closely with the Commission and the Parliament to make the register as efficient as possible.
Hence, we would have liked to see more progress towards a mandatory system in the revision that took place last year. We welcome the working group’s outspoken aspiration to make the register mandatory in the future, as well as their recommendations for improvements in the meantime, most notably on stronger incentives for those who have registered.
It is surprising how few people from the institutions actually ask about registration when contacted. If it became more of a habit to ask those who initiate contact whether they are signed up or not, we would probably see even more organizations in the register.
One of the best features of the existing register is that it encompasses all kind of interests, from private companies and consultancies, to think-tanks and non-governmental organizations. Similar discussions on registers and regulations in some EU countries tend to focus on one or two group of actors, often with consultancies as prime targets. These skewed debates miss the point as it makes no sense to make one of the many types of stakeholders accountable to transparency while others are not.
But as the EU register is voluntary, it is still possible to do advocacy in Brussels without being accountable. We believe that it is an advantage to be signed up to the register as it shows commitment to openness and to the Code of Conduct that all signatories have to abide by. Shady lobbying does not play a great role in the EU system of decision-making.
However, the mere fact that it is possible risks giving advocacy a bad name. A mandatory register would create a level-playing field where all interests who want to engage in dialogue with EU decision-makers would be accountable to transparency. It would put an end to the suspicion that a lot of influencing is going on under the radar. Decision-makers and stakeholders alike would get a better understanding of the environment in which we all function.
We are fully aware that a mandatory register would not be a silver bullet solution for all problems. That is one of the reasons why EPACA is constantly developing its own Code of Conduct. Last year we amended it to cover our members’ contacts with all stakeholders, not only with the EU institutions.
We are also developing an EPACA Charter that goes beyond the Code of Conduct to ensure ethics, professionalism and good corporate governance. The Charter will guarantee that EPACA members apply the highest ethical standards in their dealings with all stakeholders, that they strive to be the leading service providers in the market by adhering to strict professional principles, and that they operate commercially sound businesses that comply with stringent legal and corporate practices.
EPACA will continue to argue for a mandatory system and engage with all stakeholders to make it happen. In the mean time, we will do what we can to ensure that our members lead the way in demonstrating how transparent advocacy is carried out in Brussels and in the wider EU environment.
Karl Isaksson is Chairman of The European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association, EPACA, the representative trade body for public affairs consultancies working with EU institutions.