Civil society

The EU makes the Transparency Register mandatory but we expected better

Newly agreed interinstitutional joint lobby register is an important step, but the regulation of lobbying does not stop there, Fabio Rotondo argues.

Credit: The Good Lobby.

After five years of negotiations, the EU succeeded in upgrading its own lobbying regime. The Commission, the Parliament, and the Council finally came to an agreement to make the Transparency Register mandatory for all interest representatives trying to influence the EU. They did so by concluding  an interinstitutional agreement binding lobbyists, representatives of the Parliament and the Commission to register their meetings. Yet there remains loopholes.

A long pre-approval process

Back in 2014, the European Parliament urged the Commission to present a legislative proposal which would introduce a transparency register to be applicable to the three institutions by the end of 2016. The former Juncker Commission decided at the time to present the proposal as an interinstitutional agreement, which unlike legislation would have been binding exclusively for the EU institutions, and to avoid prolonging  its legislative timeframe. Thus, the Commission had launched a public consultation to prepare the proposal from 1 March  to 1 June 2016 and received 1,758 contributions (975 from individual citizens and 783 from several organisations). 

On 28 September 2016, the Commission gave the kick-off signal to start the negotiations on the compulsory registration which had often faced repeated opposition by many MEPs and the Council. In March 2020, after a hiatus  of some months, the Conference of Presidents of Parliament decided to restart the negotiations with the final voting being held in April 2021. Nevertheless, the transparency element of the registration had been previously undermined by a behind-door voting of the Parliamentary Committee for Constitutional Affairs (AFCO). This was quite paradoxical given the pivotal role of transparency in the vote.  

Almost close to transparency

The agreement on a compulsory Register is an important step towards transparency, but it must absolutely not be the only one. It is a mixed blessing for civil society which expects equal and regulated access to public decisions. Civil society representation, as data shows, is largely outweighed by multinationals (in Brussels alone there are over 500 with their own headquarters) and by professional lobbyists who represent the majority in the European capital. In total, there are over 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, making it the second capital of lobbying in the world after Washington. 

Still, there remains loopholes. For example, churches and faifth based  associations or confederations, such as the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), are exempt from the need to register. This exemption, however, does not apply to offices and organizations specifically created by churches to represent them at EU level. In short, there exists a grey area where it is easy to bypass the Register. In addition, only committee chairs, the rapporteurs (who draft the text such as an amendment to a legislative proposal then voted in the parliamentary committee) and shadow rapporteurs (who follow the progress of  specific portfolios and are responsible within a political group) are the only ones required to disclose their meetings with stakeholders within the EU Parliament. Furthermore, regular MEPs as well as lower-tier staff, such as assistants from the Parliament and the Commission are only encouraged to do so. Finally, with regard to the Council the obligation to register does not include the permanent representations of each EU Member States which extensively lobby in Brussels. However, some countries, including Germany and Italy (thanks to the pressure of The Good Lobby), have decided to make the meetings of the permanent representations transparent.  

Fabio Rotondo is a public interest advocate at The Good Lobby Italy.

This piece previously appeared on the website of The Good Lobby. The Good Lobby is a non-profit civic start-up committed to equalizing access to power for a more plural, inclusive and democratic society. The organisation built unconventional collaborations and alliances with and among NGOs, philanthropies and progressive companies. Its mission is to strengthen the advocacy capacity of the nonprofit sector across Europe.