Ben Townsend, Vice President EU Affairs at JTI, Sajjad Karim UK ECR group MEP, Wes Himes, President of SEAP, Antoine Colombani, member of cabinet for European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Stefano Marmo, Senior Policy Adviser at AmCham EU | Photo Credit: Jean-Yves Limet
Europe’s Citizens should expect the EU decision-making process to be as transparent and open as possible, with access to legislators such as MEPs and European Commissioners a fundamental part of the democratic process.
These were two of the key messages to emerge from a recent high-level policy event on lobbying. The meeting, in the European Parliament on 6 December, was co-hosted by The Parliament Magazine and the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP) and supported by Japan Tobacco International (JTI).
The breakfast event was particularly timely as it came on the very day MEPs voted to approve new provisions aiming at increasing transparency.
Under the proposed changes, the key actors of the legislative process – MEP rapporteurs, shadow rapporteurs and committee chairs - would have to publish online, all their scheduled meetings with so-called “interest representatives” falling under the scope of the transparency register.
The other MEPs would have to publish online all scheduled meetings with interest representatives. The whole parliament will vote on the proposals during the Mid-January plenary session in Strasbourg.
Participants at the policy event, hosted by UK Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim, and titled, “transparency and better regulation in the EU” said they welcomed measures that will improve transparency within the EU and related bodies.
The two-hour discussion highlighted the importance to the business sector of an effective and robust transparency system.
Karim explained why he believes that business input is important for lawmakers and the law-making process. The ECR Group member also challenged the idea that business lobbying is “regressive or harmful” to the process.
A member of the Parliament’s legal affairs committee, Karim has championed reform in the area of better regulation, and pointed out that British MEPs from his party already publish an overview of their meetings with lobbyists and their expenses.
“Ultimately, a key part of our role as legislators is to meet stakeholders and citizens affected by legislation in order to understand its potential impact" Sajjad Karim MEP
As a member of the Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members, Karim told the audience, he had direct experience of overseeing how transparent MEPs are in their parliamentary and non-parliamentary dealings.
“Ultimately, a key part of our role as legislators is to meet stakeholders and citizens affected by legislation in order to understand its potential impact. We have the freedom to decide whether or not concerns expressed should be taken on board or not but we should always ensure businesses are given a fair hearing to avoid unintended consequences, for example.”
He added that he knew of instances when it has been “clear” that if businesses had been “better consulted” and at an earlier state of the legislative process, "there would not have been so many amendments tabled by MEPs and so much opposition.”
“I would therefore,” he noted, “support stakeholders being consulted at the earliest stage in the process.”
This was a message partly echoed by another guest speaker, Wes Himes, president of SEAP, who informed participants that his organisation fully supports all efforts to build trust and maximise transparency.
He said SEAP’s aim is to “be bold and set the pace” on the issue of transparency and highlighted the growth of what he called “grassroots democracy”, examples of which include the EU’s citizen’s initiative. “Things like this are welcome developments so hopefully we will see more of it,” he said.
“Lobbying is an integral part of democracy and is essential in providing insights in the various societal interests as well as in providing information and expertise” Ben Townsend, vice president of EU affairs at JTI
Another speaker, Stefano Marmo, a senior policy adviser at AmCham EU, called the event a “very timely and important discussion” particularly in light of the parliamentary transparency vote on the same day.
He outlined what AmCham EU, which represents 150 companies of American parentage, is doing on transparency and why the organisation believes transparency is an “indispensable element” of the policy-making process.
AmCham EU strives to work to the “highest standard” of integrity and transparency and has been part of the EU Transparency Register since 2008. All our meetings with policy-makers, our position papers and correspondence are made public on our website.
However, he added, “There are clear areas where transparency in the EU decision- making process can be further improved”, including increased transparency on trilogue negotiations, “especially post-Lisbon where they have now become the norm.”
Another improvement would be greater insight into the work of the European Council, publishing agendas and other meeting documents.
Marmo said, “Post-Lisbon, the level two work has become increasingly important therefore we call for increased transparency in the functioning of Commission expert groups and related sub-groups.
“Post-Lisbon, the level two work has become increasingly important therefore we call for increased transparency in the functioning of Commission expert groups and related sub-groups" Stefano Marmo, senior policy adviser at AmCham EU
“We would also like to ensure that there is a systematic and timely communication of preparatory documents such as agendas and draft delegated acts.”
Ben Townsend, vice president of EU affairs at JTI, opened his intervention by recalling an incident in the past when he was about to speak to an MEP about a legislative issue.
He recalled how the MEP then proceeded to produce a Dictaphone, telling him that in the interests of openness she wanted the conversation to be recorded and posted online.
Townsend went on to point out that, as he too agreed on the need for full transparency in such exchanges, he did not object to the MEP’s demands. However, he said that there was still often a “climate of distrust” when the issue of lobbying involving the EU institutions and corporations and/or NGOs is raised.
He made a robust defence of the right of lobbyists to engage with decision-makers saying, “lobbying is an integral part of democracy and is essential in providing insights in the various societal interests as well as in providing information and expertise.”
It is hard to imagine lawmakers being able to make informed decisions “without listening to all sides of a debate, for and against. You cannot cherry pick democracy.”
Further contribution came from Antoine Colombani, a member of cabinet for European commission vice president Frans Timmermans, the EU official in charge of better regulation and the rule of law.
Colombani told the lively debate of the “huge” impact lobbying can have on policy-making, adding that increased transparency in this area had been a key plank of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s term in office.
He said that he also agrees that lobbying is “necessary for democracy”, partly because citizens need to know what influence is being brought to bear on the EU decision making process.
He said the Commission was fully committed to a mandatory transparency register for lobbyists, adding, “We say ‘no registration, no meetings’. The Commission has tried to convince the Parliament and Council of the need for a mandatory register but, so far, we are a bit disappointed with the results.
“What is needed is full transparency on who is trying to influence what in each of the EU institutions.”
Closing the event, Karim said he also thinks that the institutions should more readily share documents, adding, “Those with an interest in the file should be able to access these documents and we should make this easier by making them accessible online.”