Column: Political Transparency, The View From Brussels

Strict registers for lobbying, meetings, travel and expenses make Brussels more open than Helsinki when it comes to political transparency.

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File photo / Credit: @europeancommission Instagram

By Anna-Kaisa Itkonen, EU Commission Spokesperson on Climate Action & Energy

They say old habits die hard, but we are already seeing a huge change in the culture of how people perceive lobbying. Long considered the shady side of politics, it’s now seen as a normal step of the law-making process in Brussels. To debunk some of the sense of mystique and secrecy people sometimes feel towards our work in the institutions, we have opted for more openness – both for the lobbyists and for the general public.

The EU Transparency Register is the number one go-to for any aspiring Brussels-bubble correspondent or NGO-activist.

It lists all the meetings of the Commissioners, their cabinet members and senior officials with lobbyists. It is easy to use, has serious coverage and generally makes everybody’s life easier.

There’s no point in pretending lobbying does not exist. For special interest representatives Brussels is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The place is bursting with businesses solely for influencing legislation. To give just one example: within just two years two new Finnish consultancies have set up shop here, the third about to launch very soon. And both consultancies constantly recruit.

The city’s Schuman roundabout, half surrounded by the EU institutions, half by multinational lobbies, is the centre of gravity for political wheeling and dealing in Europe. Have a look into any of the quartier’s many restaurants during lunchtime and witness iot with your own eyes: lobbying taking place everywhere, in broad daylight, often over an overpriced tiramisu.

The Commission and the European Parliament set up the voluntary Transparency Register for MEPs, Commissioners and lobbyists already in 2011. Since 1 December 2014, the Commission has published information on meetings of Commissioners, their cabinet members and Directors-General with all interest representatives. The current voluntary register includes over 9,800 entities.

For a lobbyist this means uploading their business information in the system and getting a register number, which they then have to refer to in correspondence. For senior EU staff this means uploading information following each meeting as to whom they met with and exactly when. For the public this means access to all the meeting information, available on the internet. Many commissioners and directors have in addition added shortcuts at their departments’ front pages to allow for quick access to check their meeting agendas.

The Commission is pushing to go further than this, though. It proposed a mandatory transparency register for all EU institutions in September 2016. The proposal is currently with the member states and the European Parliament for adoption. In his State of the EU speech two weeks ago Commission President Juncker presented a new Code of Conduct for his Commissioners.  The cooling off period after the mandate will be extended. Stricter requirements on transparency and preventing conflict of interest will be applied. Commissioners’ travel expenses are already available upon request.

Compared with many public administrations in our member states the EU institutions are doing very well with transparency rules and access to documents. And as described above, we aim to do better. Many EU laws have a direct impact on the lives of Europeans. It’s only fair they know who’s been paying for the tiramisus.