Myriad lobbyists in Brussels advocate for private interests, especially big corporations. European citizens need a less patchy framework for transparency.
While the influence of lobbies is constantly increasing in Europe, including during the current crisis, lobbying regulation is still clearly insufficient. It must be strengthened to reinforce citizen trust in Europe.
Nowadays, there are about 25,000 lobbyists in Brussels (of which only 11,000 are officially registered) spending about €1.5 billion is spent every year. The European Chemical Industry Council alone spends €11 million a year, for instance. Some lobbying companies (Fleishman-Hillard, FTI Consulting, Burson-Masteller …) also appear among the most highly valued—an over-representation which is frequently criticised.
In 2013 a survey of European Union citizens found, for example, that over three-quarters of French respondents thought lobbying had too much influence on European institutions. And, faced with the power of these representatives of interests, the European institutions have progressively adopted specific rules to regulate lobbying.
The first political measure was only taken in 1992, when the European Parliament established its Transparency Register. In 2014, a big step was taken with the new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker: a set of rules reinforcing transparency was adopted. Now, all the commissioners, their cabinet members and all the general directors have to publish their meetings with interest representatives. In addition, all the commissioners should respect a new code of conduct, adopted in February 2018. Finally, in 2019 the European Parliament distinguished itself by setting up a compulsory ‘legislative footprint’ for legislative rapporteurs, allowing citizens to see who was influencing European legislation.
Some problematic issues however remain. First, there is a lack of consistency and co-ordination among the EU institutions. If the parliament and commission provide solid guarantees of transparency, this is not yet the case for the Council of the EU nor the European Economic and Social Committee. The European ombudsman recently opened an inquiry concerning the lack of transparency of the council, pointing to a case of ‘maladministration’ in the legislative procedure. Moreover, negotiations to render the Transparency Register mandatory are suspended, while sanctions are not sufficiently dissuasive.
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Secondly, although the European register tracks direct influence (contacts between lobbyists and policy-makers, registration of interest representatives and so on), indirect influence is not recorded. Many firms underestimate their spending in the European register, by excluding some expenses relating to indirect influence—organisation of a conference or advertising campaigns, for instance. In addition, the Independent Ethical Committee, which can formulate advice, remains part of the commission and does not have a real power of sanction.
Thirdly, the potential for improvement is real: only a third of OECD countries have established restrictions which ban the ‘revolving-doors’ practice and, more globally, two-in-five have adopted tightened rules about lobbying practices. To address these national disparities, a European approach could be relevant. European rules appear more developed than those in many countries but should be still reinforced, within a new European transparency network.
Beyond a European harmonisation of transparency rules, better co-operation with states should be fostered, to exchange national and European information. If a common agreement were reached between states and European institutions, it would be essential to embed all the transparency rules in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
In addition, a coherent European transparency network is essential to reinforce influence and the power of sanction in the face of big companies. The current ‘transparency movement’ in Europe should be centralised and harmonised, while taking into account national particularities, as an OECD report highlighted in 2012.
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European Transparency Authority
Unifying transparency policies among European institutions and also among states is a priority. At the official level, a European Transparency Authority, which would align and control all the current initiatives led by the European institutions, would be a major step. Such an agency could assess the outcomes of regulation, propose new measures and, not least, enjoy a power of sanction. In particular, it could adopt a common definition of the lobbyist and establish common procedures for registration among all the European institutions.
The value of sharing experiences, exchanging information and promoting a culture of transparency has already been proven by the ‘Network for Transparency’. This makes it easier to envisage common principles among European countries under ‘a big sister’, as between the European system of central banks and the ECB or interior ministries and Europol. The new agency would incorporate the Authority for European Political Parties and Political Foundations and some of the prerogatives of the European ombudsman.
We could imagine many restrictive rules being enshrined in the TFEU, particularly inspired by the ten recommendations of the OECD. All these ideas will however require a European consensus to be effectively implemented. The new commission should ready itself to impose it—with, as a prior step, an official conference gathering lobbyist and government representatives to listen to their self-regulation proposals.