Special Event – The issue of transparency within the EU institutions decision making-process: a revived tug-of-war or a new level-playing field?

Speakers: Kroger Martin, Ohridski Martin, O’Sullivan Aidan, Corbett Richard
Moderator: Waterfield Bruno

On Tuesday, 9th of December, at the premises of Science14 Atrium in Brussels, PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a debate concerning the issue of transparency within the EU decision-making process. The debate was moderated by Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, while the discussants were Mr Martin Kroger, Head of Unit, Transparency and Lobbying Regulation, Secretariat General of the European Commission, Mr Martin Ohridski, Policy Officer, Transparency and Lobbying Regulation, Secretariat General of the European Commission, Mr Aidan O’Sullivan, Head of Cabinet of the European Ombudsman and Mr Richard Corbett MEP (S&D/UK).

In the first part of the debate, Bruno Waterfield, introduced the speakers and the institutional context which has led to re-igniting the debate on the issue of transparency and interest representation within the EU decision-making process. He then referred to the format and the main topics which the debate would touch upon. He finally gave the floor to the discussants.

Mr Kroger started by recalling the various institutional steps on the issue of transparency and interest representation which preceded the new stances of the European Commission. He also premised that, given that transparency is a broad issue which includes several aspects of the EU institutions legislation, it would be useful to circumscribe the theme of the debate within the boundaries of the relationship between European institutions officials and interest representatives. He then stated that the initiative of President Juncker, who introduced the scrutiny of the meetings between interest representatives and Commission officials, as well as the stances of the Parliament, are paving the way for a new setting of the above-mentioned relation, in addition to the introduction of a mandatory transparency register. He then explained that the new Commission rules of conduct are already operational, while the principle which imposes interest representatives’ prior registration before meeting high-level EU officials still needs to be communicated and explained to those who are concerned. He finally added that this setting, however, will not put an end to the debate on transparency within the EU.

Mr O’Sullivan began his speech by mentioning the new Ombudsman appointment, as well as her institutional role, stating that the issue of transparency and interest representation will be one of the Ombudsman’s areas of focus for the future, along with the due vigilance on some fundamental issues, such as the right to good administration and to access to documents. He then observed that Brussels is second only to Washington DC with regard to interest representation activities and that this kind of  activity is a crucial aspect of the decision-making process which needs to be regulated. Although the question of transparency is not the “silver bullet” which will solve the set of policy questions with which the EU is faced, he stated that, in the long term, improved rules on this matter should produce good results. He then stated that the Ombudsman has welcomed President Juncker’s new initiative, as well as the proposition of a mandatory register, although he would like it eventually based in legislation. He concluded by underlining that the question of conflict of interest, namely the issue of ‘revolving doors’, is also an institutional matter which needs to be scrutinised.

Mr Ohridski explained the functions of the various instruments which are already at the disposal of European citizens, academics and stakeholders to foster institutional transparency, such as the EU portal of public consultations, the register of Expert Groups or the Financial Transparency System. He added that the European Commission and the European Parliament are pleased to announce that a new web version of the transparency register will be available in January 2015. Mr Ohridski then emphasised the necessity for EU institutions to both uphold high accountability standards and communicate appropriately about the register, as the support of the public affairs community is needed to maintain and raise the level of integrity in the decision making process. He concluded by saying that this new initiative is a guarantee for legitimacy and a valuable action to gain public trust both for European institutions and for the private sector.

Mr Corbett started by recalling the progress made in the last twenty years, European institutions have moved forward. However there is still some way to go. Not least, the transparency initiative should be extended to the Council as the inter-institutional agreement behind this regulatory stance includes only two of the main EU institutional bodies. He remarked that the Council has taken some steps to increase its transparency level, for example, by opening its meetings to the public when deliberating on legislation, but there was no excuse not to join the transparency initiative. Mr Corbett acknowledged that some argue that ministers are acting on behalf of their respective countries and that some aspects of transparency and accountability-related matters fall under the competence of national legislation. However, he stated, this aspect of transparency could also be improved, for instance by following what has been done in the Scandinavian countries and Ireland, which have instituted the practice for ministers to discuss with their respective parliamentary committees before they attend institutional meetings at a European level.

A focal point of discussion consisted of the risk of bureaucratising and professionalising interest representation, hence excluding legitimate stakeholders and citizens from the decision-making process. Mr O’Sullivan replied that this is a difficult challenge which the Commission and its counterparts in the European Parliament have to work on and he pointed out that the current legal definition of interest representation is “an entity which directly or indirectly tries to influence the decision making process”. However, he added that the simplicity of the procedure should not hinder normal dialogue with the institutions, while still recognising that there is the risk of further professionalising interest representation. Mr Corbett pointed out that registration in the transparency register is a prerequisite for scheduling a meeting with MEPs offices, while there might be cases in which an individual or a group of people of a constituency may wish to meet their representative as part of a political delegation. As a result, for the MEPs, their political judgement is also required. Mr Kroger recalled that the rationale of the transparency initiative is to shed light on the actors in interest representation. He added that exceptions should also not hinder the general policy stream.

The final part of the debate and the Q&A session also covered the following issues: the loopholes and shortfalls in EU legislation on transparency, interest representation at a national level, the issue of security and updating of information, transparency in “Comitology”, “Trilogues” and “Working Parties” procedures, the issue of public engagement, the mandatory nature of the register, the issue of national governments influence in the European Parliament.

Do you want to go further into the issues discussed in our debate? Check our list of selected sources which we have provided for you

Transparency Register, European Commission-European Parliament

Annual Reports on the operations of the Transparency Register

Commission commits to enhanced transparency, European Commission press release

European Ombudsman website

O’Reilly to take EU ombudsman’s office to ‘the next level’, The Parliament Magazine

Legislative Transparency, Richard Corbett MEP website

Juncker’s plans for lobbying Transparency: meaningful or meaningless?, Transparency International