Council signals it may drop opposition to new lobbying rules
A staircase in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. | Patrick Seeger/EPA
The Council of the European Union has indicated it is open to adopting new lobbying disclosure rules, but a top diplomat warned that striking a deal with other EU institutions will be “difficult” because of fears of transparency mission-creep.
Speaking at a European Parliament forum on transparency reform, the Netherlands’ EU ambassador Pieter de Gooijer, whose country currently chairs the EU’s rotating Council presidency, said Monday the Council “had to be involved” in the development of a revamped transparency regime.
The statements were the first indication that the Council would consider signing up to lobbying disclosure rules by reaching an agreement with the European Parliament and Commission, which already have transparency requirements in place.
But de Gooijer said some countries were still opposed to extending lobbying rules to cover their permanent representations in Brussels, where ambassadors and diplomats lay much of the groundwork for EU decisions. The Council, he said, “is a very different animal” than the Commission and Parliament.
“In my permanent representation, there are about 120 people, and they have lots of external contacts,” said de Gooijer. “We register the contacts that we have with external parties but … I don’t think it would be necessarily useful, for the sake of transparency, to make all these contacts [public].”
A recent study by a coalition of transparency NGOs found that the permanent representations, which are not subjected to any transparency requirements, are heavily lobbied.
De Gooijer said that “about a year ago” the Council ended internal discussions about whether to sign up to the Commission’s transparency regime, preferring to wait and see the Commission’s updated proposal on transparency reforms, now scheduled for the end of this year.
Speaking at the same public forum, European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said any future deal was likely to involve the three institutions — a single code of conduct for EU officials.
“Our best option of getting the three institutions in a position to enhance transparency is to go for an inter-institutional agreement,” Timmermans said, dismissing the possibility of introducing legislation to create a legally enforceable transparency register, similar to the one introduced by Ireland last year.
“If you want to go down the path of legislation, you will probably not get what you want — at least not in the first half of this century,” Timmermans said. “If [an inter-institutional agreement] works, perhaps we can convince, especially the Council, that legislation would be a useful instrument.”
The Commission and Parliament have operated a voluntary Joint Transparency Register since 2011, which was designed to identify the names of lobby firms, trade associations, NGOs and individuals who are lobbying the two institutions.
The Register was largely overlooked until 2014, when the incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker introduced new rules which prevented his commissioners, their political staff and top-level public servants from meeting lobbyists who were not signed up to the Register.
The 2014 changes also required that meetings with lobbyists be disclosed on the Commission’s websites. But the Register remained voluntary and, because it was not enshrined in legislation, lobbyists providing misleading information or those who preferred not to sign up could not be held accountable.
While transparency advocates are calling for the EU’s transparency regime to be tightened, industry representatives attending Monday evening’s public forum warned against placing a greater administrative burden on their lobbying activities.
“We want to be transparent but I do not have the time,” said Luc Hendrickx, from the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, an industry organization which declared a 2015 lobby spend above €1.6 million, employing 15 full-time lobbyists.
Fabian Zacharias, a lobbyist for embattled German car-maker Volkswagen, also warned against increasing the administrative burden.
“[B]efore we increase the requirements, we should ensure that the current rules that are…in place are actually enforced,” Zacharias said, pointing to the amount of mistakes and unreliable data on the Register. “With increased comparability [the ability to reliably compare Register entries] you increase transparency.”