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Speech - Opening remarks

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/13/581   27/06/2013

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European Commission

Maroš Šefčovič

Vice-President of the European Commission

Opening remarks

OECD Forum on Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying

Paris, 27 June 2013

Deputy Secretary-General Padoan

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you today and to share a few brief thoughts with you on the European Commission's approach to tackling this important issue of transparency and integrity in lobbying.

And let me thank in particular the OECD for taking the initiative to host this event, which we have strongly supported right from the start. It will be an excellent chance to take stock of how far we have come since the last such event took place several years ago and to learn from each other how we can do better in our management and regulation of the lobbying process.

The word 'lobbying' has obvious negative connotations, and there are sadly plenty of reasons why this is the case: sometimes it seems that hardly a week goes by without another revelation of alleged backroom deals, cash-for-influence or other such nefarious deeds.

But 'lobbying' in its broadest sense is part of the EU policy-making process – in fact, it is part of the policy-making process in all states -, and gives decision makers the information they need to make informed legislation.

Instead of lobbying, we often use the terms "advocacy" and "interest representation". The reason we use these broader terms in official texts is because they better describe the activities of all those who are engaged in what is a legitimate and often useful task.

In fact, lobbying isn't just about big business trying to impose its agenda on the lawmakers although this is the perception many people have. Nowadays, lobbying can come from everyone: from religious groups to law firms, think tanks to NGOs, from cities to trade unions, industry associations to advocacy groups. It represents – and should represent - the whole diversity of our societies.

That's why we prefer to talk about 'interest groups', because that is precisely what they all are. They all have an interest to promote and defend, a line to take on any particular piece of legislation, and it is entirely legitimate that they should be allowed to discuss that line with policy makers.

But even if lobbying, interest representation or advocacy is done in a proper way, decision-makers must, of course, pay attention.

Decision-makers must take into account what stakeholders think; they must take into account to all points of view. But, in the end, they must take their own decision, based on their own beliefs and according to their own inner compass.

One fundamental requirement to make lobbying compatible with the democratic process is that it is done in transparency, and in compliance with law and ethics.

In other words, decision makers and the public must know who is active in lobbying or advocacy, on what grounds, on whose behalf and with which means.

That is why we have introduced such a framework, a system that aims to enhance transparency by providing direct information to citizens about interest representation, and binding all those involved these activities to follow a common code of conduct that is subject to close and constant scrutiny.

This system, which we call the transparency register, today contains more than 5,700 organisations and over 27,000 individuals engaged in 'lobbying' the European Commission and the European Parliament. All of them are now bound by a common code of conduct and are subject to sanctions if they breach the rules.

A lot of time and effort went into designing the register, and we had to take a number of serious decisions about issues such as its scope and its coverage, its compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and so on.

Although the approach we took follows the OECD recommendations on this issue, it is not the same as that taken by other countries, such as the US and in Canada. Indeed, we were very conscious of the fact that the OECD itself had made it clear that "there is not one system fit for all" in this field.

The way lobbying is regulated has to reflect the specific cultural, legal and political practices of the administrations concerned. And of course it has to be seen as part of a wider effort to ensure integrity and democracy in the decision-making process in any one country or institutional system. A lobbying register alone cannot guarantee full integrity; it is just one tool among many.

Sharing ideas and expertise with colleagues from around the globe is of course why we are all here today and tomorrow, and such discussion is particularly timely for the EU delegation.

This is because we are about to embark on a review of the transparency register following its first two years in operation. Together with the European Parliament, with which we share the management of the transparency register, we are about to assess whether our system is delivering in line with our expectations, and whether we can make any changes or improvements.

We've already begun informal technical discussions with stakeholders in this field, and a number of issues have already emerged:

  • should the register be legally mandatory or not;

  • should the scope of the register be changed;

  • how can we ensure that lawyers are included (when they are effectively working as lobbyists for their clients);

  • do we need to reassess the amount and type of information that should be divulged, in particular regarding often sensitive financial information.

  • But the most immediate questions for us are how can we ensure maximum compliance with the register and how can we efficiently enforce the current system?

For some, the answer to such questions is obvious: "Make it legally compulsory, and apply penal sanctions if the rules are broken!"

But it is not quite so simple! Several lobby registers around the globe are indeed mandatory but we are not convinced that they are in fact as effective as our voluntary one. The number of registered lobbyists in most of these legally binding systems remains far below the unofficial estimates of their real numbers, and certain categories of interest groups are simply not covered at all by the obligation to register.

This is one of the main issues you will discuss here today and tomorrow, and I am really looking forward to your analysis. It will undoubtedly prove to be extremely useful to us as we prepare for our upcoming review.

There is another reason why I think the discussion here are particularly timely.

The efforts that we have made to ensure proper transparency and control do not take place everywhere and with the same intensity. Many countries have no such system at all.

We can see this diversity in the EU. Some EU Member States have similar schemes in place, others have a discussion about it and even quote the EU system as a reference; in other Member States there is neither a scheme nor a discussion. But whatever the situation is: we are happy to share our experiences.

Let me finish with one final reflection.

Lobbying can be an international exercise. As the world gets smaller, and the level of interdependence continues to grow, the way in which lobbying works is changing as well. Lobbying techniques have evolved to match the multilevel governance processes, acting both at national and at continental level, as is clear within the European Union.

But it goes beyond that: the EU is just one global player – an important one, of course, but just one nonetheless. We still need to build coalitions with other countries and blocs at an international level, and lobbying tactics have taken this into account. For many major interests, influencing the decision-making process in Brussels is more than often now the first phase of a strategy designed to also have an impact in Washington; and sometimes the reverse is the case.

This is why I think that we should also maintain and develop a regular dialogue, and try to develop our knowledge and understanding about such cross borders phenomenon. This might be another element for your discussions!

I thank you for your attention and will be interested to hear about the outcome of your discussions after the conference.

Thank you very much!

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