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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Administrative
Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud
Federation of European and International Associations Established in Belgium
Mister President, members of FAIB, ladies and gentlemen,
The Commission's communication on the European Transparency Initiative (ETI) was adopted by the College on 21 March 2007. Since the communication has been available for three months, I will not waste time today explaining the proposal in detail.
In short, the Commission has decided:
The register will open in spring 2008. By joining it, your association will contribute to, and benefit from, the explicit recognition of your profession as "legitimate and necessary".
Through cooperation on the register, we can resist any campaign to outlaw or discredit legitimate interest representation, and we can ensure a solid, sustainable foundation for the credibility and legitimacy of the business.
We can keep the EU institutions open and accessible without daily contacts between us being subjected to bureaucratic hurdles.
And by acting now, in the absence of a lobbying "scandal", we can help to prevent scandals and we can address the ever increasing level of lobbying of EU institutions in a cool-headed analytical state of mind.
We can work calmly with the profession to set out the rules of the game, instead of reacting defensively and under media pressure in a crisis.
There are of course certain practical issues. Let me go directly to the issue of financial disclosure. Here, there is one principle applying to all:
With regard to financial disclosure required to join the register, the Commission asks registrants to declare relevant budget figures and breakdown on major clients and/or funding sources.
This principle is then applied to the different categories of actors, taking into account their different nature:
I think these principles are quite straightforward. At the same time, I recognise that it leaves it entirely up to you how to estimate the cost of the lobby effort. This is quite intentional.
Naturally, we understand you might wish to ensure some consistency among yourselves in the manner you calculate the cost. In this self-regulating mode, I believe umbrella organisations like FAIB could very well take the initiative to advise their members on this point. The Commission is neither competent nor willing to provide an "accounting manual" for how you should do this.
This is an expression of trust in the European lobby professionals, and I sincerely hope FAIB's members will see it in this spirit.
Associations are in fact already calling us to sign up. But while most reactions have been very positive, you may have seen recent reports in the media that lobbyists "resist calls to join the registry" as it has been set out.
Based on the feedback we're receiving, I believe it is fair to say that this "hesitation" concerns representatives of a very specific segment of the profession: the public affairs consultancies, who lobby on behalf of clients.
Branch organisations for these professional lobby companies have said that the initiative suffered from a "fundamental misconception that money equals influence". We have never said that. On the contrary, I have spoken repeatedly about the power of the NGOs, some of which have limited financial resources. They are covered by the initiative.
At the same time, facts on funds invested in lobbying are of course a meaningful indicator of the importance of the issues at stake. Nobody would pay real money for lobby services without expected "something" in return – and that "something" is influence.
The consultancies also object that our initiative "ignores client and commercial confidentiality". To this, I can obviously only reply: of course a transparency initiative challenges confidentiality. If you wish to keep the identity of your clients secret, you will obviously not be able to support our initiative.
But I want to state it quite clearly: there is no point in lobbying against a decision already taken. The register will open in spring 2008. The profession therefore has two options :
We're open for dialogue on the second option, which remains my preferred option.
We're already working on the register, but we still have some time to discuss precise modalities within the parameters set out in the Commission communication.
This means, for example, that we can address the issue of concern to FAIB members – that joining the register might impact how your associations are treated under Belgian VAT legislation.
I obviously cannot speak for the Belgian tax authorities. But I can promise you this: we will design our register in order for it to be "tax neutral".
As I understand it, Belgium applies different tax rates for the various components of your activities.
Well, we will design our "interest representative register" in a manner that allows you to describe your association in a way which should not have repercussions on the fiscal treatment of your activities.
In fact, the title of the register was changed, among other things, to prevent associations signing up from falling into the wrong category.
So we're fully aware of the issue, and our services are approaching the Belgian tax authorities to find the right solution. Any input from FAIB would obviously also be taken into account.
As I said, our only objective is transparency. We're not in the business of raising taxes.
I truly hope that we can be partners in bringing forward the initiative, and I look forward to listening to your comments and questions.
Thank you for your attention.