With approximately 30,000 lobbyists, Brussels is known as the world’s second lobbying capital, following Washington D.C. Even though the EU’s relatively small civil service is heavily dependent on the input of stakeholders, voices calling for more transparency have become stronger and stronger. Dr2 Academy explains the state of play of transparency in the EU.
Should transparency be an obligation?
Already since the European Commission’s 2016 proposal for an interinstitutional agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register, the different EU institutions have been debating the form of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Transparency Register (hereafter: “the Register”). The Register, introduced in 2011, is a database that provides insights into all activities carried out by organizations with the intention of directly or indirectly influencing the decision-making processes of the EU and/or shaping the implementation of existing legislation. The Register has been set up to answer core questions such as what interests are being pursued, by whom and with what budget. The system is operated jointly by the European Parliament and the Commission.
In recent years, the European Parliament and Commission have tried to convince the Council of the EU to become more transparent by applying the Register. Currently, meetings with Commissioners, cabinet members or Commission officials at the helm of the Directorate-Generals need to be registered. In the European Parliament, the use of the Register has also become more of a common practice, in an effort by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to increase transparency towards their constituencies. Some MEPs make the presence in the Register a condition to accept meetings. The Council of the EU, however, has been lagging behind: most meetings still take place behind closed doors.
No registration, no meeting?
The most controversial issue in the negotiations is the principle of ‘no registration, no meeting’. This would mean organizations can no longer meet policymakers from the EU institutions if they are not in the Register. Following recent progress in the negotiations (which focused on additional clarity on the future purpose and scope for an enhanced Register), this conditionality will be further discussed in the coming months with all three institutions expressing their intention to reach an agreement as soon as possible. Furthermore, a revised Register is likely to include additional guidelines on virtual communication channels, as the nature of meeting policymakers changed significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent teleworking policies and travel restrictions.
In the meantime, the different political groups in the European Parliament are increasing their transparency efforts. In June 2020, transparency watchdog Transparency International launched a new feature on the EU Integrity Watch, in which it tracks lobby meetings with MEPs. This led to a total of 10,000 logged meetings by the end of September 2020, with the percentage of MEPs reporting their meetings increasing from 37% to 44%. However, there are internal discrepancies in the consistent usage of the Register. Mainly Scandinavian and Western European countries, as well as the liberal and green political groups are most consistent in their logging of meetings. Pressure from civil society, therefore, seems to work, but an obligation would make these efforts redundant.
A mandatory Register and its implications for Public Affairs
A mandatory Register could relieve lobbying in the EU of its somewhat dubious reputation, as well as enhance citizens’ trust in EU decision-making. Even though it is still unclear what the exact scope of the future Register would be, it is apparent that organizations will have to become more transparent about their activities in Brussels – regardless whether this is due to intrinsic motivation, or due to (mandatory) external obligations.
Organizations engaging in EU Public Affairs should, therefore, consider transparency and ethical interactions with policymakers to be an integral part of their daily work.
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