a response, part II / ETI

Response to the “European Transparency Initiative” as presented by the European Commission on May 3, 2006

Response to Section II “Transparency and Interest Representation (Lobbying)”

Question 2

Do you agree that lobbyists who wish to be automatically alerted to consultations by the EU institutions should register and provide information, including on their objectives, financial situation and on the interests they represent? Do you agree that this information should be made available to the general public? Who do you think should manage the register?

In order to achieve “effective and proportionate” measures in the field of transparency we consider a registrations system as an indispensable tool. However, since such a system is aimed to (1) provide transparency for European citizens of a (2) highly sophisticated sector of policy experts working on very specific topics, a consultation alert service seems to be an inadequate incentive. Anyone who is an expert working in a policy field certainly doesn’t need to be alerted to a consultation published on “Your Voice in Europe” while interested citizens already appreciate the alert service offered in order to keep track of policy developments in the European Union.

A register therefore poses the important question “How to get people to register”. According to the Commission’s proposal there would be:

A voluntary registration system, run by the Commission, with clear incentives for lobby­ists to register. The register would include automatic alerts of consultations on issues of known interest to the lobbyists.

The question is: Can a voluntary registration system do the job?

To consider whether such a system can or cannot do the job requires a clear understand­ing of what the job is, as well as how existing registration systems work. The European Commission states the following as an essential component of a basic framework of understanding of the relation between EU institutions and lobbyists.

When lobby groups seek to contribute to EU policy development, it must be clear to the general public which input they provide to the European institutions. It must be clear also who they represent, what their mission is and how they are funded.

It follows that the question of which information must be provided in a registration system is probably more important than the question as to which incentives are used to get people to register. Secondly aiming at enhancing transparency in lobbying means that a registration system is not a goal in itself, whether it is compulsory or not.

Therefore a legitimate public interests of transparency needs to be balanced with a legitimate right of privacy for stakeholders. Certainly those considerations may be ad­dressed with carefully worded information requirements. But even unfounded criticism toward built-in loopholes will undermine the purpose of the registration system.

A lasting assessment of which information need to be provide for the general public needs to be based on the Commission own requirements. By setting itself high standards of transparency in decision-making each Commission official has legitimate needs to know who is representing which interests. Those needs should be met in a registration system as a minimum requirement of information.

In order to keep such a registration system updated, each time a stakeholder participates in a consultation the information given should be reconfirmed and/or updated if neces­sary.

More importantly, since the registration system and its information requirements result from the Commission’s own commitment to transparency in policy making, it cannot be entirely voluntary to provide the respective information if one wants to participate in the political process. The responsibility of which comes with participation commands re­sponsible stakeholders to provide the requested information. Thus a registration system would be the basis upon which access to the commission can be obtained. In turn it lies in the Commission’s own responsibility to live up to its own standards and to ensure that stakeholders are registered in a voluntary registration system.

Since the target of lobbying is for the most part the European Commission and the Euro­pean Parliament, this means that we would have two registration systems: one applying to the European Commission (voluntary registration system) and another one applying to the European Parliament (non-voluntary registration system, since it is a condition for obtaining a badge)? Do we need two distinct registration systems?

Regarding the European Parliament: It is true that a register of accredited lobbyists is published on the EP website. As the Green Paper remarks it is simply an alphabetical list and it provides only the names of the badge holders and of the organisations they repre­sent. It gives no indication of the interests for which a lobbyist is acting.

It is our view that one registration system should cover ALL European institutions as well as ALL actors involved in lobbying those institutions. Therefore an encompassing registration system, combining the CONNECS database approach and the accreditation system of the European Parliament, is the only credible option.

A central registration system would provide for a number of advantages: Stakeholders and officials alike would have an important information resource, to say the least. And it could provide the public with important information about the political process and in­crease public confidence in the EU institutions.

Moreover, an encompassing registration database does not mean every entry carries the same amount of information, nor does it mean that every information is needed from each person or organisation registered. Information provided would relate to a specific pur­pose, e.g. obtaining an entry badge for the Parliament building, submitting a contribution to consultation, etc.

Objections to a statutory register of outside interests tend to focus on the difficulty in defining lobbyists and the impracticality of maintaining a register of outside interests. If a statutory register of lobbyists includes all those who lobby, then the difficulty of dis­tinguishing between different types of lobbyists (commercial consultants, in-house cor­porate, civil society, voluntary sector) becomes less problematic.

There is also evidence that these systems are practicable and they can make important information available to the public cheaply and effectively by electronic information gathering, storage and retrieval, providing easy access to all who wish it. It is inaccurate to claim that all statutory regulation is cumbersome and ineffective. In fact compared to the current situation of different databases and the need to state information over and over again, a central registration system can be expected to simplify the life of stakeholders.

A central registration system with a reachable and comprehensible user-friendly online database would help to improve the transparency of governance and accessibility of the EU institutions. But a registration system is not a panacea for all problems stated in the Green Paper. It is only the first step in ensuring sound standards in public life.

Given the importance of a registration system for the European institutions the question who should manage it is very important. Since it provides a dual-use function with of­fering valuable information for the institutions and the public, reliability and impartiality are the most important management principles. The information gathered and provided needs to be accurately stored and traceably logged so that changes and developments can be followed.

In order to guarantee the usability for the European Parliament and the European Commission a certain level of collaboration between both branches of the European polity is needed. Because the primary function of the registration system is to grant ac­cess to the decision-making processes on the European level the trust of citizens in the impartiality of a managing body is also needed. How should a governmental institution regulate the access to itself and building up the citizens trust?

Therefore a compromise needs to be found in order to allocate the management authority to neither of the two institutions themselves, but to a third one which enjoys the confi­dence of both the public and the institutions. We would endorse the installation of an independent managing body installed under the auspices of the European Ombudsman.