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17th Aug 2017

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A long way to go for effective EU lobby regulation

  • It should be more difficult for regular lobbyists and interest groups not to register. (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee discussed the final agreement on the review of the EU's lobby register (the “Transparency Register”) last week (11 February).

Over the past year, we at Transparency International have been following this review together with other NGOs, in particular the ALTER-EU coalition, but also with organisations representing lobbying companies (like EPACA) and individual lobbyists (like SEAP) over the past year.

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We were able to make our points in a number of hearings in 2013, the latest in October 2013, asking for a mandatory register while suggesting incentives, with potential negative effects, that could enforce at least a quasi-mandatory adherence in the short term. Without such, sanctions for potential misbehaviour by lobbyists cannot be effective.

For years, we and others have asked that Commissioners, MEPs and other EU officials should not speak at events of unregistered lobby organisations and consider not meeting with unregistered interest representatives. We asked that interest groups, which are members in Commission expert groups, should register. And we suggested during the last hearing that the EU institutions could learn from the rules of procedure of the German Bundestag, which foresee that only representatives of registered associations shall be heard.

Looking at the draft final agreement between the European Parliament and Commission, a number of these steps have been taken on board to move closer to a quasi-mandatory register. In particular, a set of “incentives” should make it more difficult for regular lobbyists and interest groups not to register. Nevertheless, these incentives still fall short of making the register quasi-mandatory.

The stance taken by the Commission and the Parliament over the past year was that it wasn’t legally feasible to move towards a mandatory register. However, for anyone following the review process from the start it has been clear that a mandatory register was not wanted politically. Nonetheless, the Parliament will still half-heartedly request such legislation from the European Commission. The legal opinion of the institutions’ internal services (which have not been published to our knowledge) has provided a welcome excuse.

While waiting for the final list of such incentives for the European Commission, Parliament’s debate last week highlighted the incentives that the European Parliament wants to put forward for itself.

First, European Parliament officials or other staff will be encouraged to check whether organisations they are contacted by are registered and, if not, to encourage them to register. That’s far from revolutionary as one would have expected such to have a been a long-ago first step. Secondly, access to European Parliament premises shall be restricted for non-registered organisations or individuals. This doesn’t sound any different to what is already the case.

Thirdly, it would only be allowed that MEPs and the European Parliament itself co-organise, co-host or grant patronage to events with registered organisations. It is obvious that these last incentives in particular are a clear step forward from a purely voluntary register towards a register that is less easy to ignore – a welcome evolution.

Nonetheless, the register would only become quasi-mandatory and fully relevant if it were to affect the most risky part of lobbying, i.e. the potential for intransparent relations between policy-makers and interest groups. In the least worst case, these can result in a skewed interpretation of the public interest, and in the worst case they can end up in conflicts of interest or even corrupt relationships. A mandatory register therefore could actually protect ethical MEPs as it would ensure, to a wide extent, that those registered lobbyists they meet are who they say they are and would face sanctions for undue behaviour or corrupt offers.

The EU lobby register review has also skipped over the introduction of a legislative footprint, a public reference to meetings held with, and draft amendments or other type of input received from, interest groups by EU policy-makers. In the absence of quasi-mandatory measures, the review hasn’t resolved the issue of lobbying law firms. And the review has even paved the way for exclusion of member state permanent representations from the scope of the register despite the broad acknowledgement that an important part of Brussels lobbying is conducted through national government channels.

As you can see, there’s still quite some way to go. This is why in the coming years, Transparency International will not just continue to push for a better regulated, a more transparent and a more ethical lobbying process here in Brussels, but will coordinate across the EU to advocate for improvement also at national level.

In the end, the objective is not to demonise the interaction between policy makers and outside interests, a necessary part of democratic society. Our work is rather about guaranteeing that this process actually supports democracy by giving the widest possible range of views a fair chance to be heard in European policy-making.

Ronny Patz is EU Communications & Policy Officer at Transparency International EU Office (TI-EU), a part of the global Transparency International movement. TI-EU promotes accountability, transparency and integrity in the EU’s internal and external policies and the EU institutions through strategic advocacy campaigns at the EU level.

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