A mandatory Transparency Register for lobbyists? Bring it on!

The Juncker Commission has made better regulation and transparency one of the ten priorities for its term of office. Conscious of the growing public disillusionment with Europe and how rules are made, the Commission President committed himself to introduce a mandatory Transparency Register (TR) in 2016 and a public consultation to this end was launched last week (1 March).

This won’t really have any meaningful effect on Public Affairs companies as a de facto TR is already in operation, with lobbyists increasingly having doors closed in their face if they are not signed up, and companies unable to speak at events or belong to expert groups if they are not on the TR.

Since last year, Commissioners, their cabinets and Directors-General have published lists of who they have met, and will only accept meetings with registered lobbyists. Stories abound of unregistered companies desperately trying to register in the lobby of a Commission building before being allowed up to their meeting.

In the European Parliament, British Conservative MEPs have been publishing who they meet for the past 5 years, and the Greens are keen to make it mandatory for rapporteurs and Committee Chairmen to meet only registered lobbyists. While the Council has been the most reluctant of the EU institutions to join in, the trend for greater openness can be seen in the Member States’ Permanent Representations in Brussels. The current Dutch Presidency of the EU Council has decided to list a selection of the meetings of their top officials on their website and to organise a Transparency Camp Europe (TCampEU).

So what is there not to like about greater transparency?

The answer seems to lie in the way the raw data on published meetings has been twisted to pursue a political end. We are told that of the 7000 meetings that the top Commission officials declared, that 75% were with corporate or industry lobbyists and that civil society groups just don’t get a look in. The implication is that the Commission is biased towards a corporate lobby, without taking account of the fact that many of these meetings are at the Commission’s own request as it seeks the technical expertise and know-how that comes from leaders in the sector. The risk, however, is that as officials feel more scrutinised that they will feel less inclined to meet individual companies.

The proposal for a mandatory register will come in the form of an Inter-Institutional Agreement (IIA) between the Commission, Parliament and Council – complimenting the IIA that is about to be concluded on better regulation. The Parliament has already got down to work to try and influence the proposal via a non-binding report by German Green MEP Sven Giegold. He has made a series of far-reaching proposals to tighten up the system, including lobbyists having to report who they have met each month plus their lobby expenditure. Fellow MEPs have accused him of going too far, but mainly in relation to suggestions he has made to ban them from holding additional jobs or taking long cooling off periods once they leave office. The message seems to be; by all means tighten up the lobby industry but hands-off our benefits.

So, while public affairs companies should have nothing to fear from a mandatory register, we do need to remain vigilant over the unintended consequences of the drive to greater transparency.

Author

Richard Steel

Senior Associate

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