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Speech "Lobbying in Brussels – transparence oblige: scope and prospects of the transparency register

European Commission - SPEECH/14/480   19/06/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Maroš Šefčovič

Vice-President for Inter-institutional relations and administration

"Lobbying in Brussels – transparence oblige: scope and prospects of the transparency register

European Voice Public Affairs Directors' conference, Paris

19 June 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A little over three weeks ago, the citizens of Europe sent a message about what they expect to see from the EU in the years to come.

Following the elections, it's vital to restore trust into the EU. The election results show that in many Member States trust is clearly lacking.

We must make sure that citizens are reassured that the work of the institutions serves the general public interest in Europe,

  • that we are working for them,

  • for their jobs,

  • their education,

  • their decent living conditions.

This is a task for the European institutions, but also the Member States.

And I would not put responsibility on them alone:

Everyone bears responsibility for what is our European Union: the business world, the trade unions, civil society, political parties, schools, universities and of course also the media.

Just like a democracy cannot work without democrats, the European Union cannot work without Europeans, with European minded citizens.

Therefore, I would like to see more people speaking up for Europe - and also for the decisions which were taken.

When you read the press, you sometimes get the impression that no one was in favour of a decision which was taken.

Everyone criticises that it was not enough or too much; even those governments or Members of Parliament who voted in favour often seem to take their distance. And no one speaks in defence.

Under those circumstances, it is no surprise that citizens get the impression that something anonymous called "Brussels" decided instead of their elected representatives.

I would like to see more national ministers and parliamentarians, but also NGOs, business- and trade union leaders defend - or at least explain - a compromise at EU level to which they often contributed.

Compromise between 28 Member States is at the heart of the European Union.

In a compromise, you never get 100% of what you wanted.

But if no one defends a compromise, you might end up in a situation where there won't be compromises anymore at all - because people turn away from Europe.

But let me come back to the decision-making itself. I think the best way to restore trust is by good and informed decisions and results.

Good and informed decisions means that you have to listen

  • to what people want,

  • what their concerns are

  • and what the possible impact of your decision is across Europe.

It is essential to make sure that decision-makers take into account the social, economic and political realities in Member States and different areas of society.

I want to mention in this regard the Impact Assessments which the Commission does before making proposals. They are of great quality and stand every comparison in the world. Even the House of Lords has recognised the high quality of the process.

We are committed to consulting as widely as possible. Most legislative proposals are opened up to a wide consultation process, involving everyone from NGOs and citizens to regional and national governments – and of course business and industry. This is a transparent process and the results are publicly available.

And yet, very often, we hear concerns that the EU institutions are too open to undue influence. The influence of lobbyists was one of the issues mentioned in many countries during the election campaign, and not only from one part of the political spectrum but also from the middle and the centre of society.

Of course, contacts with stakeholders are not limited to public consultations. There are meetings, conferences, campaigns or publications launched by stakeholders or pressure groups. There are many ways to convey messages to decision-makers.

Therefore, we must take these concerns seriously.

- What do we do to protect the institutions? -

Since their early years, the institutions have

  • legislation,

  • rules

  • and procedures

in place to safeguard the decision-making process from undue influence.

During this Commission mandate, we have strengthened and clarified many of the internal ethical rules for Commission officials in this regard:

  • Stronger rules on avoiding and managing conflicts of interest in the Staff Regulations;

  • Guidelines for staff on the acceptance of gifts and hospitalities;

  • Guidelines on whistleblowing;

  • Guidelines on outside activities;

  • Increased attention to post-employment obligations;

  • Internal IT modules which allow staff to manage their ethics related issues online;

  • and finally a revised Code of Conduct for Commissioners.

- But what does the other side do, those who try to influence?

We cannot rely on rules for the decision-makers and civil servants alone.

Public attention also focuses more and more on those who try to influence the decision-makers.

And here I come back to what I said before.

Everyone should take responsibility for the EU and for restoring trust. Organisations should bear this in mind when they participate in shaping the debate at EU level. Doing it in a transparent way and playing according to the rules is vital.

Businesses, employees and NGOs benefit from the EU. Therefore, it is not purely altruistic to take some responsibility.

One means of tackling the issue of trust is the EU Transparency Register – which all of you know I hope.

Many of you do know it because your organisations are registered. Others in this room have not registered yet – and I hope this conference will encourage you to consider or re-consider your enrolment.

The register is operated jointly by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

It includes a Code of Conduct which those, who sign, commit to respect.

It provides a lot of information

  • to the public,

  • to the media,

  • to academia

  • and to decision-makers

They can find out

  • who is active at EU level,

  • in which areas,

  • with how many staff

  • and with which budget.

It sheds light on what is happening in general.

It gives the bigger picture - without getting lost in details –

and it contributes to an informed debate.

It avoids over-regulation and administrative burden on both the administration and on registered organisations.

You probably followed the discussions between the Commission and the European Parliament about the review of the Register.

We had a lot of discussions about improvements to the register and the issue of a mandatory register.

We had expert hearings on the question, and we clearly found out that the issue is not as simple as it might seem.

There are many open questions:

The only legal base we found is Article 352 of the Treaty. This means unanimity in the Council, with some Member States needing prior approval from their national parliaments to agree.

You know in this regard that the Council does not participate in the Register. It sends an observer to the meetings of the secretariat which manages the Register. We are still trying to convince a majority of Member States. But it is not easy. So you can imagine how difficult it would be if we proposed binding legislation in this area.

The comparison with the US system also raises questions. Does binding legislation not reduce the scope of a register because of necessarily narrower definitions?

Does it not cover, in the end, less lobbyists than our current, very broad approach?

What about resources and administrative burden?

What kind of information really adds value to the public debate and who could we really oblige to provide it? What can legally happen if someone does not provide the required information?

Clearly, we would need much more clarity on this.

Therefore, we opted to focus on improvements of the current system.

Our register now has over 6600 registrants representing, at a conservative estimate, around 30,000 individual lobbyists, covering – according to independent estimates - around 75% of the business-related organisations present in Brussels and 60% of the NGOs. It is a unique and rich source of information.

Therefore; organisations and companies involved in lobbying should have nothing to hide and should sign the register.

It is good for the public to know who is active and it is good for the reputation of your organisations to register.

Beyond reputation, we try to provide practical incentives. For example:

  • Commissioners should not lend their patronage to events organised by groups that fall under the definition of the register, but are not registered;

  • The credentials of organisations participating in expert groups or requesting meetings with Commission staff shall be checked - and those that are not registered will be encouraged to do so.

Now:

Will the transparency register help to restore some of the faith in the EU institutions?

Well, of course, it is only a small element. Policies and results are the most vital part.

But we must not underestimate the concerns in large parts of the populations when it comes to lobbying.

More national governments address the issue and consider introducing their own lobby registers: a similar scheme is being discussed in the UK, we have a register in Austria; we had a discussion in France where the "Assemblée Nationale" recently adopted its first transparency register – inspired closely by the EU version.

This issue is here and it will stay.

Therefore, let's make an effort to address the concerns and do it in a balanced way.

It will not replace the big issues of growth and jobs, energy security or migration which will be decisive for gaining trust.

But it is a necessary element also for dealing with these big issues.

Thank you!


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