A title with a bracket does not look good. It neither raises a question, nor makes a strong statement. Though, it seems to me to serve the purpose of an article which briefly takes stock of the review of Transparency Register for lobbyists and reflects upon the implications for European Public Affairs’ practitioners.
As foreseen by the inter-institutional agreements (IIA) which established the Transparency Register in 2011, a High Level Working Group composed by Members of the Parliament and Commission officials at the end of last year released thirty recommendations to review the register. Those recommendations are now part of a Draft report that will be voted on the 18 March 2014 by the Parliament Constitutional Affairs Committee (with no changes to the 30 recommendations themselves) and then at Plenary. The measures will then be approved by the Commission and enter into force, with the changes to the IIA, in January 2015. The 30 measures and follow-ups tackle existing technical issues and make various tweaks and clarifications. One of the most notable is the call to institutions to “give further consideration to incentives available to regulate the institutions’ relations with interest groups […] such as linking registration to rules on patronage, speaking at committee hearings etc.”
The main issue, mandatory registration, however, remains unsolved. The Working Group agreed that the only existing legal basis (Article 352) to make the register mandatory would require unanimity in the Council and relegate the Parliament to a consultative role. Therefore the Parliament calls on the Commission “to promote a political action aimed at the creation of a new legal basis or [if such attempt fails] to submit by the end of 2016, a proposal for the introduction of a compulsory register based on the currently existing legal basis.” [see the explanatory statement at the bottom of the Draft report].
The introduction of a mandatory register, requested from many voices (pag.5), seem however to raise problems for the Commission even beyond the legal difficulties. A conversation with Mr. Linder, a Member of Commissioner Sefcovic Cabinet, resulted in the acknowledgement that a mandatory register would need a more limited (thus less comprehensive) definition of interest representatives and lobbying activities and raise issues of enforcement. Such conversation was also precious in reminding the ultimate objective of the register: to provide transparency of the lobbying activities to European citizens. If the use by decision-makers of the register is an important – even necessary as I argue among the policy recommendations in my evaluation paper – healthy check for the transparency register, European citizens should be the core beneficiaries of the register.
In this sense, those same voices calling for a mandatory register have a role to play that may even prove more efficient than a compulsory register. Registering (submitting and updating accurate information) is the obvious step zero. Self-regulation could be the first step, drawing a clear line between those that represent an interest and interact with the EU institutions according to the rules and those that do not is the second step. The message to get through is that registration might still be a choice, but transparency is the only alternative. Finally, the turning step is explaining to the wider audience, with no hypocrisy, much realism and clarity, where such a line stands and what the labels public affairs, lobbying, interest representation, advocacy etc. mean. In this year of institutional changes, a common effort to explain Brussels would enormously benefit Brussels itself. It would eliminate some dangerous myths around our profession and return confidence into the EU decision-making process.