Civil society Oversight

Coalition of actors criticises Commission’s transparency initiative for falling short

Recent days have seen a wave of criticism against the new Commission’s transparency initiative. 

The recent campaign of lobbying watchdogs and critical EU actors follows after a conference on the topic, organised by EP vice-president Guillaume and a activist coalition called ALTER-EU, was held on 23 April in the EP. The conference focused on the role and functioning of the EU’s lobbying register and the impact of lobbying in the Council.

More or less coinciding with the event, Transparency International has published a report entitled Lobbying in Europe: Hidden Influence, Privileged Access, which compares and contrasts lobbying disclosure regulation in various European countries and in the EU. The report concludes that “lobbying regulation in Europe is woefully inadequate, allowing undue influence to flourish”. TI’s EU director, Daniel Freund, concludes that “unfortunately, money and inside contacts often seem to be necessary to open the doors behind which policy-makers draw up pieces of legislation in Europe”. The Commission’s better-regulation chief Timmermans pointed out that the Commission came second in the report, which is true: only the Commission, together with Slovenia, managed to score more than 50% on TI’s lobbying regulation evaluation instrument (see p. 8 of the report).

This however is considered not enough by a coalition of NGOs, who yesterday submitted a petition to the Commission, signed by 100 NGOs, calling on it to make the existing lobbying register legally binding. Natalia Alonso, a senior director at Oxfam and signatory to the petition, motivated her support for the campaign saying: “A mandatory lobby register would help balance the influence that wealthy elites have over rule-making compared to public interest groups. The EU must put people first and powerful interests of a few, second”.

Alonso was joined in her criticism by EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly who in an interview with the EUObserver, published on the same day, accused the EU insitutions of using the data protection exception to transparency as a shield against the disclosure of external influencers. The same article points out that the current rules only bar the top 300 Commission officials out of a total of roughly 33,000 from meeting with unregistered lobbyists. In comparison, TI estimates that anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 lobbyists are currently active in Brussels, of which around 7,000 are registered.

The chorus of critics swells only months after incoming Commissioner Timmermans announced with great fanfare various steps to create a more transparent and efficient Commission administration, including wider proactive disclosure of officials’  contacts with lobbyists. The measures followed in the wake of the resignation of Commissioner Dalli of Malta, who was accused of taking bribes from tobacco lobbyists, under suspicious circumstances. Dalli has since maintained his innocence and has been taking steps to clear his name.

Only recently, Politico Europe published an article with five easy steps for lobbyists to circumvent the existing lobbying rules.

Related background news can also be found via this blogs regular news digest (under the category News Reports).