The Commission's transparency register strategy is extremely worrying
Regardless of who you talk to, everyone agrees: a strong register is important. But when it comes to practice, things start to look a lot bleaker, writes Margarida Silva.
European Commission | Photo credit: Fotolia
The European Commission presented its proposal for a revamped EU transparency register last September. It set out to make this lobby register mandatory by expanding the 'no registration, no meeting' rule to Parliament and Council.
Now is a good time to take stock of the progress made so far.
Regardless of who you talk to, everyone agrees: a strong register is important. But when it comes to practice, things start to look a lot bleaker.
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The Commission is about to negotiate its proposal with Parliament and Council, which have spent the last few months preparing their own positions.
Instead of the legally-binding tool that had gathered the support of countless civil society organisations, the draft proposal on the table is for an inter-institutional agreement (IIA) binding the three institutions.
Now the key to this chosen IIA route will be its 'as-mandatory-as-possible' system, which requires the correct incentives to be put in place by all three institutions.
The Commission's proposal attempts to limit the scope of the register to organisations that perform direct lobbying (i.e. meetings, calls, emails), instead of retaining the current definition that also includes indirect lobbying, such as providing advice on who and how to lobby.
And while the Commission's aim to make the register more manageable is fair enough, this strategy is extremely worrying. Exempting indirect lobbying from the register could create a massive obstacle for proper scrutiny, and might distort what is really happening in Brussels.
After all, it is no coincidence that intermediaries like lobby consultancies, law firms and think tanks make up a big part of Brussels' corporate lobby sphere.
At the moment, an unregistered lobbyist cannot meet with the top-ranking members of the Commission. Far from being a perfect policy, this rule at least poses some incentive for lobby actors to join the transparency register.
Still, since it applies only to the highest-level officials, merely 10 per cent of the entire Commission staff body are covered by this rule. The Commission's proposal would extend this condition to the Parliament and the Council, but not to more of its own staff.
Lobbying is most successful at the initial stages of the legislative process, so civil servants drafting reports and policies are prime targets for those who want to influence decision-making.
Contrary to what Commission first Vice-President Frans Timmermans has claimed, an extension of the ban would therefore be the most effective way to protect these civil servants from excessive and opaque lobbying.
Parliament had quite a wild ride this year, up until June when it agreed on its mandate for the inter-institutional negotiations on the lobby register.
There are quite a few positive aspects to the position MEPs are taking ahead of the negotiations, from demanding a register that will eventually be legally binding for lobbyists themselves, to defending the broad definition of lobbying that covers both direct and indirect influencing activities.
Sadly, its efforts are geared mainly towards the two other institutions. Parliament itself seems reluctant to adopt the 'no registration, no meeting' rule, arguing this would infringe on MEPs' 'freedom of mandate'. Civil society and lawyers on the other hand, agree that surely avoiding unregistered lobbyists would enhance their freedom, not obstruct their work.
It is understandable that the Parliament cannot adopt a system designed for another institution without adapting it, but it must not falter at the prospect of this task.
The Council continues to be the trickiest party, having previously gone to some lengths to avoid scrutiny. Just this year, the EU Ombudswoman opened an inquiry into the Council's lack of scrutiny. And let's not forget that the Council simply refused to join the last transparency register reform.
Alter-EU research shows that national representations in Brussels are major lobbying targets, particularly for those representing big corporations. The Council simply cannot remain in its hermetically sealed 'black box', especially considering the power it yields over EU policymaking.
Still, it has already procured a legal opinion that rejects the possibility of it being bound by an IIA. Beyond this legal issue, countries like Germany and Hungary appear to block even the weakest proposals for permanent representations and Council presidencies to participate in the register.
What we can hope for at this point, is that these member states will be able to overcome their resistance, with action at the national level now more important than ever to achieve this.
Nonetheless, it is the Council that must step up to meet the standards of the Commission and the Parliament, not the other way around.
And then there is the IIA negotiation process itself, which will enter its next stage after the summer - once again behind closed doors. So far, we do not know when exactly the first IIA meeting will happen, or how long the process will take.
It is disappointing to see the three institutions paralysing meaningful progress as they create a new hurdle for themselves as soon as they have cleared away an existing one.
In the interest of transparency and accountability, they must finally pick up the pace and create a tool that closes the gaping loopholes in the current register.
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