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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Administrative
Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud
American European Community Association
Mr Georges de Veirman, Mr Yves Tavernier, thank you for your words of welcome.
And thank you to the American European Community Association for having organised this gathering today, and for giving me the opportunity to update you on where we stand with the implementation of the European Transparency Initiative (ETI).
As you all know, the Commission has announced that its register for interest representatives and the code of conduct would be launched in spring 2008. We're almost ready, and will indeed launch the register before spring turns to summer!
Before digging into the current state of play, let me briefly recall why the Commission launched a European Transparency Initiative in the first place. To explain this, I have to take you back to 2005, when I was just appointed. In those days, I met with many stakeholders of the Commission for the first time. And I was struck by the sometimes barely concealed mistrust against the Commission that I encountered. This contrasted with the positive personal impression I had of the Commission from negotiating EU accession for Estonia, my country of origin.
Some NGOs I met claimed that the Commission's public consultations were biased. They said – and still say – that not all contributions received equal treatment. In short, they claimed that our decisions were driven by big business rather than convincing arguments or seeking the common European good.
I still think they were wrong. Commission officials are working to high ethical and professional standards and are subject to a Code of Good Administrative Behaviour and clear Staff Regulations. And as an institution, the Commission has voluntarily set itself minimum standards in 2002 on the very subject of conducting public consultations. And as members of the College of Commissioners, my colleagues and I are strongly committed, and under a Treaty obligation, to always promote the overall common European good.
Finally, while the Commission is certainly subject to intense lobbying, I don't believe were subjected to deceitful or abusive tactics from lobbyists in general.
In fact, I recently learned that one of the key NGOs involved in debating the European Transparency Initiative is planning a cyber action "targeting the inboxes of one or two key persons in the Commission working on the issue". It would be ironic if those advocating decent lobby behaviour were the first to break our draft code of conduct!
Leaving such incidents aside, I retained one important policy observation: the way in which regulations are adopted in Brussels and the influence exerted by lobbyists were looked at with suspicion by many citizens and NGOs. Over time, this perception develops into mistrust or suspicion. The Commission therefore decided to take preventive action to safeguard citizens' trust in the legitimacy of the European decision making process.
We want to prove that neither we nor the lobbyists have anything to hide. And we want to make clear that lobbying is an honourable profession which is vitally important in a democracy.
We wanted to give you, members of the profession, an opportunity to demonstrate that you share this concern. So we proposed self-regulation, instead of imposing a mandatory system.
Following a lengthy consultation phase, during which we received more than 160 responses, the Commission took its decision on how to proceed March 2007. I am sure you know the details of this decision: all interest representatives are invited to subscribe to the internet-based ETI register. While registering, they will be asked to disclose some information which shows who they are, what interests they represent and against what financial background they work. All registrants will have to declare that they agree to comply with the Commission's Code of Conduct or with a professional code that has comparable rules.
The Commission's department drafted the code of conduct after discussions with stakeholders. It was submitted to a public consultation from December 2007 to February 2008. Subsequent to this, the code was slightly adapted, and it will finally be adopted by the Commission very soon.
Some details of the registration process and of the code have recently generated debate in Brussels which you have certainly been able to follow.
One of the discussions concerned the question whether individuals or organisations should register. The Commission considers it sufficient for organisations to register. Indeed, the interests represented can be assessed without requesting individual names. This is particularly true, as those lobbying on behalf of others, namely public affairs companies and lawyers, will be obliged to publish the names of all their clients.
This, in fact, fully addresses the initial concern expressed by the NGOs, namely their worry about the perceived "corporate bias".
I understand the NGOs now have higher expectations, wishing to use the register to identify possible "conflicts of interests" and what is called the "revolving doors problem".
I want to be very clear on this: I take such issues very seriously, and I have recently decided to stop the current possibility of accepting, as Commission staff, experts from – and paid by – private companies. It is my conviction that when the Commission needs such expertise, it must pay for it. A voluntary ETI register is not the right place or tool to address this issue. For such concerns about the independence and impartiality of Commission staff and Commissioners – whether during or after their time in office – we need the more binding rules in the Staff Regulations, the Code of Conduct for Commissioners and the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour.
I'm sure you'll also expect me to say something about the requirement for financial disclosure – one of the elements in the registration process. Opinions on this question vary between those who advocate the publication of very detailed figures and those calling for more general elements or even no financial disclosure at all.
My line is this: money does not "equal" influence, but it does enhance it, and a register without financial disclosure would fail to address the issue of public perception. We wish the public affairs consultancies good luck in what – I understand – is a favourable, expanding market. I expect, in return, that they do not deny the link between influence and money invested in lobbying.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee has voted a very encouraging report on ETI, some weeks ago. They reacted favourably to the suggestion made by the Commission to go for a common registration system, and they agreed with the Commission on all substantial points concerning the definition of lobbying activities; the scope of the register; sanctions; the code of conduct; financial disclosure and the need to have a common, inter-institutional register.
The report, should it be adopted as it stands in Parliament on 8 May, is therefore a very good basis for inter-institutional discussions, including with the Council. The emerging agreement on a "one-stop-shop" register was part of my initial proposal, and I know it corresponds to what the majority of stakeholders would prefer. We are therefore ready to work with the European Parliament, and Council, on a common register that meets the expectations and special requirements of all institutions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I conclusion, I believe the political debate on this issue is coming to an end. While discussion continues on practicalities, there is now a broad consensus on the need for lobbyists to register. This consensus is even spreading beyond Brussels to national capitals. Those of you working in the US are probably not surprised that we have finally reached this point.
I am grateful for the support I have received from the corporate sector, and the many concrete commitments some of you have given to join the Commission's register.
I will continue to defend the view that there is nothing wrong with lobbying, and that the Brussels lobby world is in no way penetrated by scandals. I count on you to join the register that we're about to open, and make your contribution to safeguard the current un-bureaucratic openness of our European institutions.
This is why I consider the European Transparency Initiative a great opportunity for the lobby professionals.
Thank you for your attention.