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Siim Kallas

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud

"A more transparent and accountable Commission – And what about the Think Tanks?"

European Policy Centre
Brussels, 17 April 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning and many thanks to the European Policy Centre and to Hans Martens, EPC Chief Executive for this invitation to evaluate the "state of play" in my portfolio area five years into the mandate.

I prefer "state of play" rather than "bilan" or "legacy", because in my area, I can assure you that we're still working hard! In fact, the EU Budget and Financial Programming was just added to the list, and next week, I have to table the 2010 budget in Commission and Parliament.

So it's still a bit early – especially for a breakfast briefing – to draw the line.

Nevertheless, let's see how far we've got so far.

The portfolio allocated to me in 2004 by President Barroso was a strong and comprehensive one. Well-conceived reforms were in steady progress, but they were undermined by occasional spectacular failures, which had diminished the public’s trust in the European Institutions.

My aim has been to combine the separate DGs and offices in the diverse portfolio of Administration, Audit and Anti-Fraud into a clear and coherent agenda.

After five years, I am proud of the efforts and progress made by my team of ten Directorates General and Services.

We have exploited the synergies within the portfolio. There have been no major scandals or major reputational damage to the Institution.

But rather than just "keeping the engine running", we have put in place a set of new innovative, positive and forward-looking policies.

Let me briefly touch on 4 areas

  • We tackled the biggest enlargement in the history of the EU. This challenge was successfully met, thanks to a strong political commitment, and the positive attitude of Commission staff in general. We have now recruited more than 4000 new colleagues from the 12 new Member States.
  • Within the Commission, an e-Commission initiative has generated greater transparency and more efficient working methods.
  • Budgetary Discharge was granted by the European Parliament throughout the mandate period. The Commission deserves discharge. Things are progressing. The last report from our Auditors was the best ever.
  • We're planning a new European Quarter along the rue de la Loi. The goal is to create a strong symbolic presence, with public spaces, public transport, and buildings of high environmental and architectural quality. Competition results were announced in March 2009.

I therefore feel confident that I will pass on to my successor an administration that is accountable, efficient, modern, transparent and open to dialogue.

And maybe you will all eventually benefit from a nicer European Quarter!

Let me now address specifically the issue of transparency:

As you may know, the Commission made it a Strategic Objective for 2005-2009 to aim at a "high level of transparency" and to ensure that the Union is "open to public scrutiny and accountable for its work". A set of concrete policy proposals were outlined in the "European Transparency Initiative" and after wide external consultations, clear decisions were announced.

Fulfilling a commitment I made in my 2004 Parliamentary hearing, citizens can now see who receives how much money from the European budget and how the taxpayers' money is spent.

It took some convincing and exciting political battles, but Member States eventually agreed.

This delivered transparency for the beneficiaries of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Structural Funds, sparking a healthy debate about policy objectives. This has and will increasingly lead programming authorities in Members States to invest EU funds with the same care as resources disbursed directly from the national treasury, and not as budget lines from Brussels that have to be “absorbed”.

For research grants and other grants managed directly by the Commission, a search engine now allows the public to browse through the beneficiaries of the more than €10 billion of grants committed by the Commission every year – new excellent research material for think tanks!

Furthermore, a voluntary, public on-line register for interest representatives was launched on 23 June 2008. Today, more than 1300 organisations have joined the register, bringing irreversible transparency to how vested interests are attempting to influence decisions in EU institutions.

Citizens can now see who try to influence the decision-making process of the Commission, what their mission is, and the financial resources they invest.

As registrants are automatically alerted to open, public consultations organised by the Commission in their field of interest, the Register spreads transparency well beyond the Brussels' microcosm, making consultations more open and inclusive.

This openness builds public trust by inviting reinforced participation and scrutiny by third parties. It also encourages and enables the Commission to improve the content of its policies, and to ensure fairness and balance in its consultations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Being hosted by a "think tank" this morning, I was wondering what "think tanks" might be thinking about all this?

Unfortunately, so far, among the major think tanks in Brussels, there's only Hans Martens and the EPC to congratulate for joining the Register!

Let me recall that – when we consulted on the basis of a Green Paper – we clearly said that “lobbying” means all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions.

We explicitly and deliberately included think tanks in the target group.

So "think tanks" were on our radar screen from the beginning. But none of them reacted during the consultations. We were left to wonder what they were thinking...

Let me briefly explain why we think they should register.

Originally, think tanks were conceived as “universities without teaching,” But they also differ on other points: they have no students, and they are not subjected to the system of peer review that academia uses to promote diversity of thought and scientific rigor. "Normal" academic institutions are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second.

Some would argue that policy-driven US think tanks have reversed this process: "conclude, then justify." In the US, think tanks have dramatically grown in size and influence during the past 100 years. Their numbers increased from 8 in 1910 to over 1,000 today! Today, modern think tanks are tax-exempt, political idea factories, with huge budgets. In the US, the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the "soft money" contributions to the Republican Party.

In fact, by being outside the scope of US lobby regulation, US think tanks may be enjoying an unfair comparative advantage.

But perhaps European think tanks are different, still? They're obviously fewer and smaller in size. But is their role that different?

"Friends of Europe", for example, claims on their web-site that membership offers an opportunity to contribute to the events programme and to gain visibility through Friends of Europe.

Indeed, later this month, Friends of Europe, co-organises an "international summit" on "investing in Africa's growth and health". This is obviously a very serious event, but with 2 senior representatives on the panels, it is also a lobbying opportunity for the company "Total", the corporate co-organiser of the event, putting it in touch with the EU Development Commissioner, high EU officials, MEPs, etc. To their credit, "Total" is completely transparent about its interest representation, having joined our register.

But "Friends of Europe", like other think tanks, should register, thereby giving credibility to their claim that "Friends of Europe is an independent think tank for EU policy analysis and debate".

I know from Hans that this can be done without too much hassle. In fact, what we request is a lot less than EPC already has on their web-site.

I also acknowledge that we can improve what we require from think tanks – to make it more meaningful...

For instance, I know everyone – including myself, I'm afraid – is referring to it as a register for "lobbyists". But for most think tanks it is absolutely crucial to project an image of independence. We have heard a similar argument from some of the churches: "we do advocacy for the greater good", they say, "not representing any particular interest". Obviously, the "greater good" is a useful and flexible concept, used through history also to justify anything from Marxism to libertarian capitalism...

I take a more pragmatic approach. Most think tanks do no direct lobbying whatsoever, and would never accept to prepare a report on behalf of a corporate sponsor.

The influence obtained through think tanks is not direct, and indirect methods seems to be a highly appreciated tool: As a recent survey found, 75% of corporate interest representatives declares spending less than 25% of their "public affairs" budget on direct lobbying.

Therefore, missing the indirect avenues would mean missing an important segment of the market.

And let me once again remind you that the Commission has decided to make this a register for "interest representatives", to be understood as anyone trying to influence the decision-making process. The scope is admittedly large and all interests are considered à priori legitimate. Signing up gives you an opportunity to explain your role. It allows you to show that you bring a constructive contribution to European integration. For this reason too, I believe joining the register is in fact in think tanks' own interest.

Beyond that, what is the future of transparency in Brussels?

Let me quote a well-informed think tank executive:

"... the move to increased regulation will depend a lot on whether or not we have a case like the Abramoff scandal in Washington. That would certainly change thinking (...) The automatic response from the Commission to any scandal of that sort would have to be: more control. (...) We should focus first of all on getting what we have now to work well. More regulation is not always the answer, since that just sharpens the interest in finding loopholes (...) It is much more important to create a climate, an ethics of transparency and openness. "

My thoughts entirely, Mr. Martens!

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