Revision of the EU Lobby Register – a chance for improvement

In June 2011 the European Commission and the European Parliament launched the Joint Transparency Register also informally called the EU lobby register. It built on the Register of Interest Representatives set up by the Commission in 2008. Both, the European Parliament and the Commission are responsible for the supervision of the Register. It is managed by the Joint Transparency Register Secretariats which is made up of only four EU officials – two officials from the Commission and two from the Parliament.
Now, two years after entering into force, the Transparency Register is being revised. The legal basis of the Register – the interinstitutional agreement (IIA) between the European Parliament and the European Commission comprises a clause which obliges to review the Register no later than two years after entering into operation.

The procedure

In order to carry out the revision, an interinstitutional high-level Working Group was set up on 10 June of the current year, chaired by the conservative German MEP Rainer Wieland who is also the EP Vice President in charge of transparency issues. The Working Group consists of the representatives of the Commission, the European Parliament as well as an observer from the European Council. A total of 10 MEPs are represented in the Working Group – one Member from each political group and three Members from the Committee on Constitutional Affairs. As the only Austrian MEP I am also a member of the Working Group.

In total ten meetings have been planned for the Working Group which intends to send its recommendations to the Bureau of the Parliament by the end of December. This means that the main, content-based part of the revision procedure will be concluded by the end of this year. It is foreseen that the new Lobby Register comes into force at the beginning of the next legislative term.

The first three meetings focused on the data that have to be disclosed by lobbyists in the Register, namely on Annex I and II of the IIA, the Code of Conduct and the Complaint Procedure. So far the debates have been rather controversial, therefore the outcome is unpredictable.

Two more meetings are planned in October: The first to wind up the debate of previous meetings, the second for an exchange of views with transparency stakeholders. On 6 November a hearing is planned with legal experts to discuss whether there is legal basis for a mandatory Transparency Register.

Shortcomings and recommendations

One of the main problems is that the data in the register are incomplete and inaccurate. Currently, the register contains the names of the lobbyists with a parliamentary access badge in the best case. Meanwhile, we all know that the Parliament is not the only institution lobbied. It should be a requirement that the number and the names of all lobbyists active on the EU level are made public. If there are lobbyists who have held public office in the last 10 years, this also has to be visible. Lobby consultancies should disclose the complete list of their clients.

In order to ensure adequate transparency it is also essential that lobbyists disclose the legislative dossiers they have been lobbying on. In addition, the information concerning the expenditure on lobbying should be in lower bandwidths and be based on uniform criteria. Finally, it should be the task of the Transparency Register Secretariat to ensure that this information is complete, up-to-date and correct.

Code of Conduct

Unfortunately the current Code of Conduct is not clearly worded and avoids tackling conflict of interests. “Inappropriate behavior” and “undue influence” have to be clearly defined. It should cover but not be limited to the activities infringing upon the private sphere or personal life of the policy maker. The Code of Conduct should include concrete examples of inappropriate behavior. Employing unregistered lobbyists or other “middlemen” has to be banned.

Since the Code of Conduct does not offer any real sanctions other than the removal of the registrant from the Register, public scrutiny of the wrong-doers is essential. It has to be visible for the public who has broken the rules and whether they have undertaken steps to improve.

The Transparency Register has to deserve its name

Whether a mandatory Transparency Register has a legal basis in the EU-legislation or not still has to be clarified. But a functioning and a robust Transparency Register is a matter of political will in the first place. Whereas the ways of establishing it can be different, one thing is clear: The Register should be at least “de-facto” mandatory. The task of such a register is quite simple, namely to provide a true and complete picture of all the actors involved in lobbying. Or to put it in other words, it has to make clear who is lobbying whom, what they are lobbying about, and how much is being spent trying to influence the decision-makers on the EU-level. The Joint Secretariat has to have enough resources to evaluate and monitor the Register. This is the legitimate cost of democracy that is worth paying. Otherwise such a transparency register does not fulfil its goal and becomes a tick-box exercise, cementing the problems instead of solving them. Über 10.000 Unterschriften für volle EU-Lobbytransparenz; 13. November 2013. 10,000 people demand a mandatory lobby register!; 13. November 2013.