When principles struggle to find their way into actions

Victor Seghin

Changing the intern rules and practices of a state administration is always a colossal and intricate task. When it comes to the European Union institutions and its 42.000 members staff, it is no different. The rules and codes of conduct of European bodies may be redefined soon, as the European Parliament is about to vote an own-initiative resolution on transparency and integrity.

The elections held in a few Member States these past months proved it again by being a major focus point: Brussels is not hugely popular. Far from it. Part of this growing resentment lies in the functioning of the EU that many consider opaque and detached from its citizens. In that regard, the intense lobbying carried out in Brussels is often criticized as a serious danger to the democratic bedrock of the Union.

But aware of their shortcomings in that matter, the European Parliament and Commission tackled the problem of lobbying’s opacity in 2011. Implemented that year, the transparency register is a database available for every European citizen to consult which gathers information about all lobbyists active around the European institutions. Or so was it supposed to be. The register was and still is not mandatory. Lobbyists have no obligation whatsoever to declare their activities and are merely “expected to register” as the agreement phrases it. As a result lobbyists have stayed largely out of the institutions’ oversight.

In face of this lack of legal coercion, the transparency efforts could only be achieved via incentives for lobbyists to register. For instance accesses to the European Parliament are only granted to registered lobbyists. In 2014 Commissioners pledged to stop meeting with unregistered ones. These incitements certainly helped to boost the number of registrations. After a long stagnation around 5.000 entries before 2014, the register adds up today more than 11.000 registrations  (a third of the estimated number of interest groups in Brussels).

But this progress was only superficial. The information given by the lobbyists including financial disclosure turn out to be regularly incomplete or out of date. The harshly understaffed secretariat of the transparency register is helpless in front of the vast number of declarations and is unable to check in details the thousands of entries. The objectives of transparency are then far from being met.

But this situation frequently criticized by NGO’s and observers might be on the brink of improvement. A motion for a European Parliament Resolution is currently being discussed and will soon arrive in plenary vote in Strasbourg. The Resolution covers a lot of topics spreading from the protection of whistle-blowers to the accountability of Commissioners but the main reform concerns the transparency practices in Brussels.

The biggest amendment to the current rules provided would be the extension of the obligation of only meeting with registered lobbyists to all relevant Commission staff (as opposed to only Commissioners today) and also to all Members of Parliament. The extension of the transparency procedures to the parliamentarians is an important part of the reform. Christian Beck, an assistant working on the matter with the official rapporteur of the Resolution confirms the tension surrounding it : “It’s not just sensitive it is also topical because it is on what happens right now. That is definitely at the core of disagreement in the Parliament because people are scared they might be obliged to do things they don’t like to do.”

Another substantial change required by the Resolution is the inclusion of the Council of the EU in the transparency process. The latest survey conducted by the NGO Transparency International showed that the safeguards against undue influence in this institution are much lower than in other European bodies. Where the Commission received a score of 48% and the Parliament 45% (way above the average of 26% of the Member States), the Council ended up with only 17%. The resistance towards lobbying regulations in this institution remain particularly steady.

And that resistance could have an enormous impact given that each institution could have a veto right in the future negotiations of the agreement. “The inclusion of Council that the Parliament calls for a long time could come at the cost of a general slowdown of the whole process. The question is to which cost are you really ready to have the Council of the EU included and at what red line you would have to say : that’s too ridiculous” regrets Christian Beck.

Yet in the end it not so much the scope of the transparency register that the relevance of the information it compiles that will translate the efficiency of the measure. In that area the new transparency register should also be more complete. Mandatory updates on expenditures for lobbying activities could be implemented as well as an obligation to list all donors and their corresponding donations exceeding 3.000 €. But again the declarations need to be checked to ensure that they are “meaningful, accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive” to quote the Resolution’s proposal highlighting the current loopholes.

The report calls then for “a proper monitoring system for submission”. In the first draft of the Resolution published in November 2015 it was stated that “at least 5% of declarations should be checked every year”. But after a year and a half of work and negotiations in the parliamentary commission, the system has been abandoned for a checking based on a random sampling. The decision to remove the mention of a fixed percentage is most likely linked to the difficulties and oppositions of an increase of funds to the transparency register secretariat.

The decision to actually give the secretariat the means equivalent to its task is the unavoidable step if the European institutions are serious about improving their culture of transparency and their accountability towards the European citizens. If not, these praiseworthy principles of transparency and integrity might still get translated in the laws and codes of conducts but never turned into actions.