Transparency, accountability and integrity: what lies ahead for interest representation and decision-making in the EU?

Speakers: Hohlmeier Monika, Beck Christian, Varakas Paul, Katsaitis Alexander, de Elera Alvaro, De Vinck Isabelle
Moderator: Coen David

On the 20th February 2024, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised an afternoon discussion on the evolution of the EU rules on transparency, accountability and integrity of the decision-making process with Alvaro de Elera, Member, Cabinet of Vice-President Jourova, European Commission; Christian Beck, Head of Office, Daniel Freund MEP (Green/DE); Isabelle De Vinck, Chairperson, European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA); Paul Varakas, President, Society of European Affairs Professional (SEAP) and Alexander Katsaitis, Professor, Stockholm University.

Daniel Braun, Head of Cabinet, Vice-President Jourova, European Commission, held a keynote speech.

The debate was moderated by David Coen, Professor of Public Policy at UCL.

David Coen opened the event by introducing himself, the panellists and the attendees. He provided the context of the policy evolution regarding the EU rules on transparency and highlighted the importance of the introduction of the Mandatory Transparency Register in 2021, which, for the first time, included the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of the European Union, as well as of President Metsola 14-points plan and the new code of EU officials and interest representatives. 

Daniel Braun started his keynote speech by emphasising that transparency represents the bedrock of trust, which is deeply intertwined with accountability and integrity of public institutions. While presenting the main developments that occurred during the current legislative mandate, he stated that the European Union has advanced with significant strides towards enhancing transparency and integrity of the EU decision-making process. Indeed, the adoption of the Interinstitutional Agreement on the Transparency Register in 2021 marked a watershed moment in ensuring that all entities and individuals engaging with EU policy-making are identifiable and their interests made clear, he clarified. He also added that this was also helpful to demystify the interactions that shape EU policies.

Mr Braun stressed how the conditionality principle (namely the obligation of being present in the Transparency Register, in order to interact with EU institutions) constitutes a cornerstone of the 2021 agreement and has become an integral part of the working method of the three main institutions involved in the legislative process. He continued by stating that this resulted in a binary outcome, whereby interest representatives’ presence in the Transparency Register is de facto mandatory and that EU officials ascertain whether the given entity is present. He then stated that, although it is constantly improving through the input of stakeholders and civil society, the rules enshrined in the register are yet to be fine-tuned, while emphasising that a review is expected by the end of next year.

Subsequently, he mentioned the Anti-corruption package, proposed by the European Commission in May 2023, which aims to harmonise crimes and penalties among EU Member States and beyond. He then specified that the package established measures to reinforce a culture of transparency and integrity by including the creation of an anti-corruption network and strategy and it would probably be adopted by the end of this year.

Mr Braun then outlined how the creation of an EU Ethics Body represents the first joint forum on ethics covering all EU institutions and bodies mentioned in the EU treaties. He also emphasised how this proposal shall allow EU citizens to verify that representatives of EU institutions commit to integrity and transparency standards. In this context, he specified that the Ethics Body, while focusing on rules, aims to foster a culture of integrity and create a forum where public oversight could help to improve a common culture of transparency. He finally stated that negotiations are progressing and he wished for the adoption of the proposal before the European elections.

The latest development of this legislative mandate regarding transparency covered by Mr Braun was the question of foreign influence. The speaker highlighted the necessity to establish a robust approach to safeguard the process from undue influence while remaining open and engaged on the global stage. He briefly explained that this proposal puts forward harmonised rules on transparency of interest representation carried on behalf of third countries to influence EU policy and decision-making. Daniel Braun also specified that lobbying by foreign entities is not inherently problematic or dangerous, except when influence activities are conducted covertly, consequently being a possible vector of external undue interference. Indeed, the European Commission, without banning any activity, aims to ensure that European citizens and the EU policy-making environment can verify interest representation on behalf of third countries, a question which, he emphasised, also concerns the quality of democracy in the broader sense of the term.

The speaker concluded his keynote speech by affirming that the interactions between interest representatives and EU institutions are becoming increasingly complex and multifaceted also, as a consequence of digitalisation. He also highlighted how the recent steps serve a dual purpose, namely ensuring that these interactions are conducted transparently and empowering citizens with the tools and information needed to hold both institutions and interest representatives accountable. While the keynote speaker considered these results satisfactory, he stated that there will still be further challenges ahead for the years to come.

The moderator moved on to the panel debate with a question to all the panellists concerning the function of interest representation and to what extent this is important for the EU policy-making process.

Christian Beck stated that interest representation is not only helpful, as there is the need to have aggregated and technical information when examining complex issues, but should also be viewed as a fundamental right, as addressing and engaging with EU institutions is enshrined in the democratic process. However, he argued, interest representation activities should be transparent and monitored, especially if a given entity can afford to bring additional attention through direct or indirect interest representation. Against this backdrop, he expressed appreciation for the progress made so far, while acknowledging that there are still gaps to be bridged, especially when rules are transgressed.

Isabelle De Vinck stated that interest representation is essential for the EU decision-making process by agreeing with Mr Beck that it is a fundamental right to express concerns and opinions and by stating that it is an obligation of public institutions to listen to the concerns and the impact of their activities on citizens, companies and civil society organisations alike.

Alexander Katsaitis also remarked that interest groups play a critical role in European policy-making while emphasising that decision-making is a complex process. He added that listening to citizens’ and interest representatives’ concerns, as well as receiving valuable expertise that is needed to make fully-informed decisions, are important aspects of policy-making in general. He also explained that interest groups change as a result of the system we are considering. Therefore, the transformation of the EU into a closer political union could represent a factor of further intensification of interest representation’s activities, he clarified.

Paul Varakas emphasised how interest representation constitutes a vital collective interest as it adds unique value and provides specialised expertise to the work of decision-makers. However, he specified that the caveat lies in conducting these activities with transparency, integrity and without undue influence. Consequently, according to Mr Varakas, the result of these three dimensions should lead to a better outcome in the decision-making process.

Alvaro de Elera stated that interest representation is part of democratic participation, therefore it is by all means necessary. However, he also stressed that, as for any other human activity, it needs to be regulated to not be abused, and, for this reason, actions at EU level were needed.

Subsequently, acknowledging the panel consensus on the legitimacy and necessity of interested representation, David Coen asked Alvaro de Elera his perspective on the rationale behind the Mandatory Transparency Register, the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement and the mandatory arrangements which followed.

Alvaro de Elera affirmed that the agreement on the renewed Transparency Register was necessary to tackle some pitfalls of the previous system such, as an example, the fact that it did not include the three main EU institutions dealing with EU legislation and that it lacked the conditionality principle, which made the Transparency Register de facto mandatory. He also stated that other important aspects were introduced, while adding that next year there will be the first revision of the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement. Regarding this matter, he stated that, based on the acquired experience, the revision shall lead to further deepening and amendments to the current system.

Inquired by the moderator regarding the Council of the EU exclusion from the Register until 2021, Alvaro de Elera pointed out that the Council is a different polity compared to the Parliament and the Commission, as it is also subject to national laws and mandates. For this reason, he stated the Council of the EU main issue was based on the abovementioned consideration when it engaged with the question of transparency at EU level. As a result, the solution found was to make the Interinstitutional Agreement more flexible by not imposing obligations at EU level, while allowing member states to commit through individual commitment towards transparency rules in order to include national civil servants and politicians alike.

David Coen directed the debate towards the question of the conditionality principle and to what extent new transparency rules could be satisfying, according to the panellists.  

Paul Varakas started by saying that conditionality is a broad topic of discussion. He pointed out that the conditionality principle was necessary to make the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement effective.  The latter covers new forms of interest representation, and harmonises the information to be included in the Register. He also mentioned that there are some aspects which should be better clarified regarding the type of information which should be included.

Regarding Mr de Elera’s and Professor Coen’s reference to the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement and the creation of a Mandatory Transparency Register, he expressed the opinion that the term “mandatory” does not always live up to the expectations it carries. Indeed, he noted that, while a strong principle of conditionality should be in place, loopholes can be found to go around the rules. Finally, while recognising general improvements in terms of transparency and accountability at the European level, Mr Varakas stated that a new Transparency Registry should reinforce the conditionality principle in some aspects.

Alexander Katsaitis stated that the 2021 Agreement reflected the evolving nature of interest representation in the EU. Indeed, he noted that the text embodied some longstanding questions, such as improving the accountability of interest groups’ interactions with EU institutions. Against this backdrop, he defined his position as a middle ground between what Mr de Elera and Mr Varakas stated, arguing that the new Transparency Register is a move towards the right direction, adding that it should be also taken into consideration to what extent the system can be effective in practice and its full compliance can be ensured.

Indeed, the speaker expressed concerns about how the different parts of the agreement would work in different institutions and emphasised the question of how the different EU policies would communicate with each other. He continued by stressing that, in order to raise a culture of transparency and integrity, strengthening effective communication between different institutions should also be a concern, as the conditionality principle on its own, as well as the individual institutional and interest representatives’ duties alone, cannot be considered a panacea for all possible matters which the questions of transparency and integrity raise.

Isabelle De Vinck agreed with Mr de Elera on the need for regulation and considered the new Transparency Register as a milestone towards EU-wide rules and standards for transparency. However, she also stressed that the gap lies also in the fostering of a culture of integrity. In this regard, she stated that standards alone would not promote the implementation of these rules, whereas a common culture of integrity could fill the gap. Consequently, the speaker emphasised that, in order to promote transparency, interest representatives and decision-makers alike must interact and cooperate most transparently, also beyond legal obligations.

The speaker also expressed her discomfort with the link between the Qatargate scandal and interest representation. More specifically, she pointed out that the frequent coupling of the two questions could create a misleading linkage between interest representation and corruption. Finally, she expressed her confidence in the upcoming review of the Interinstitutional Agreement and the belief that the dimensions of transparency will improve.

Christian Beck went back on the previous question about the European Council’s inclusion in the Transparency Register by expressing the opinion that the rules adopted so far are insufficient by stating that, in light of the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement, only when a given EU member state is holding the Presidency EU transparency rules apply for a small fraction of the civil servants that are in actuality involved in the EU policy-making.

He subsequently specified that, after the Qatargate scandal, the European Parliament started questioning its own rules and further fostered transparency. The speaker also mentioned that, according to the new code of conduct, every parliamentary meeting with interest representatives must be published by the Members of the European Parliament and their staff. In addition, he stated that this is yet not enough, as there are other areas which should be covered, such as, for example, MEP funding. He also highlighted the need for improvement especially, when it comes to institutional self-policing as an independent Ethics Body could improve the implementation of transparency and integrity rules.

Finally, he engaged with the topic of the recent European Commission proposal to increase transparency and democratic accountability of interest representation activities on behalf of third countries. In this regard, he expressed concern that the current proposal would still allow unclear lobbying activities to be associated with those that operate transparently. He also stated that if all interest representation activities, either domestic or international, were bound by an actual mandatory register and that, in this way, undue foreign influence would be easier to detect, while the reputation of interest representatives would be better protected.

Alvaro de Elera pointed towards a more contextual approach when he engaged with the question of bettering transparency standards, as EU institutions are at the beginning of a common exercise of improving and implementing new rules. While acknowledging the frustration that may emerge from the fact that rules and regulations are sometimes slowly improved, he reminded that it would be not realistic to expect the perfect solution immediately. Indeed, in order to identify pitfalls and close loopholes, a certain degree of experimentation and hands-on experience is necessary, he added. Hence, he suggested building on what has been already achieved in terms of transparency to foster both peer and societal pressure and to convince any reluctant party to adhere to the best practices available.

The moderator inquired the speakers about the role of sanctions and their enforcement, as well as about the role of the EU Ombudsman regarding transparency.

Paul Varakas emphasised the importance of applying sanctions properly and consistently. Consequently, he outlined the need to distinguish between rules applying to interest representatives and to decision-makers when considering sanctions. In this regard, the speaker remarked that interest representatives are obliged to respect the principle of conditionality to interact with EU institutions, and more so after the introduction of the obligation for MEPs and their staff to publish their meetings with them. In this connection, he stated that the Transparency Register is de facto mandatory to interact with EU institutions, in this instance, the European Parliament.

Paul Varakas went on by stating that the Transparency Register Secretariat is, in his opinion, currently underfunded and oftentimes, does not possess the capacity to oversee the large amount of information and data received. The speaker continued by distinguishing among different types of sanctions, namely those applied in the event of a simple error, the actions or omissions, which can also lead to a ban from the Transparency Register and those related to criminal law. He also specified that this does not mean that there is a connection between lobbying or advocacy activities to criminal ones, but the mere fact that criminal law applies to everyone. Moving forward, Mr Varakas also pointed out the existence of so-called “private sanctions”, such as those applied by SEAP and EPACA codes of conduct, that can be applied to those who are members of these associations.

Going back to the moderator question on the EU Ombudsman, Mr Varakas stated that the role of the EU Ombudsman is primarily to watch over how rules are implemented by EU public institutions and therefore can make recommendations on how EU rules are implemented, however, so far, the Ombudsman does not have the competence to apply sanctions.

Alvaro de Elera replied to the question by emphasising the importance of implementation when it comes to transparency rules, no matter to what extent the rules are considered fit for purpose. He subsequently highlighted how appropriate capacities are a crucial element in verifying information and data accuracy. He also stated that if ensuring flawless accuracy is not always possible, European Institutions will have to allocate more resources to ensure a more rigorous implementation of transparency rules. He finally added that he would not be surprised that in the revision of the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement next year this will happen.

Christian Beck started by emphasising that, theoretically, the European Parliament has no flawed rules concerning sanctions by explaining that, for example, MEPs can be fined for omitting a declaration of a meeting. Against this background, the speaker remarked that, although some breaches of the code of conduct have been documented, sanctions or fines have not been applied so far. As well as this, he pointed out that, along with self-policing, independent auditing is necessary to ensure that sanctions are put in place. He finally reiterated that it is in the best interest of those who conduct interest representation activities to have a truly mandatory register enshrined in EU law in order to have a level playing field for all actors, either domestic or foreign.  

By referring to the complexity of lobbying, Alexander Katsaitis argued that there could be different forms of undue or hidden influence that occur in different areas. In this context, he pointed out that, although the mandatory register covers interest groups, their resources could not be fully disclosed. He proceeded by stating that procurement is another area in which potential breaches in transparency or integrity rules may occur. He further stated that there should be cross-reference, not only between EU institutions, but also among different areas in which interest representation is conducted to avoid silos or monitor only specific clusters. Subsequently, the speaker addressed the risks associated with the links that there could be between interest representation activities at the EU level and those conducted at a national level.

David Coen asked Christian Beck to give an overview of President Metsola’s 14-point plan and then asked Isabelle De Vinck and Paul Varakas which part of the new rules on the conduct for MEPs they considered relevant to them.

Christian Beck started by explaining that, after the Qatargate scandal, the President of the European Parliament presented a 14-point plan as an opportunity to improve the existing framework on transparency. He explained that the plan was widely supported by the Conference of Presidents and most of the points were formally adopted. He moved on by explaining significant changes were: the introduction of mandatory publication of MEPs meetings (including those with third countries), the putting into place of additional rules on ‘revolving doors’ by introducing a ban on MEPs from engaging with former Parliament Members who have left the institution in the previous six months and a more effective system of assets deliration of MEPs. He also clarified that changing the statute of European Parliament Members is a complex exercise, as it requires the approval of each member state. He concluded by stating that the 14-point plan was implemented overall while adding that how rules will be applied has not been included.

Alvaro de Elera took the floor by clarifying interest representation is a complex phenomenon which has different manifestations. He continued by stating that while most of them are legal, others may even fall under the remit of criminal law. Once this occurs, he continued, the question of interest representation should be set aside. Indeed, he explained, while the Qatargate scandal could be considered a form of interest representation, at the end of the day it is more a matter of corruption.

For this reason, the response to the issues emerging from the question of transparency and accountability was differentiated. For example, the rationale behind the EU Anti-corruption package and the Defence of Democracy package compelled EU institutions to include the matter of foreign influence, which is not necessarily criminal by nature, he emphasised. Indeed, the very aim of the Defence of Democracy package is to make the funding transparent, he added. Finally, the speaker mentioned the proposal of the Ethics Body, which should also issue standards on conditionality and transparency of meetings and which should primarily address interest representation activities which are legitimate.

Isabelle De Vinck pointed out that the 14-point plan is another step on the journey towards creating a culture of transparency and ethics. Referring to the question of implementation mentioned by Mr Beck, she agreed that it needs to be improved. The speaker emphasised that a culture of integrity is needed to ensure that no person or entity can find ways to circumvent transparency and integrity rules in any given system.

On the 14-point plan, Paul Varakas clarified that there is a differentiation to be made between the rules applying to interest representatives and MEPs. Subsequently, he pointed out that SEAP praised the European Parliament President for using the Qatargate scandal as an opportunity to push for further reforms in the 14-point plan. Regarding his perceptions of the impact of new rules, he stated that it is too early to draw conclusions, even if there are new positive elements already, such as the disclosure of meetings mentioned by Mr Beck. He also noted that a culture of transparency is slowly spreading. He concluded his answer by stating the more transparency rules will be applied, the more the culture of transparency will become stronger.

Alexander Katsaitis started by praising the 14-point plan and the 2021 Interinstitutional Agreement, however, he also shared his scepticism about whether the mere process of information disclosure on interest representatives would automatically imply more integrity although the information provided by public bodies are more easily available for observation and cross-referencing. In addition, while appreciating the remarks of Mr De Elera on the difference between interest representation and corruption and the limits of the European institutions’ competencies, he affirmed that we should be careful not to limit the discussion on transparency and try to address all aspects of the complex phenomenon of interest representation, especially those which fall in the remit of criminal law or are not yet covered by current rules.

Alvaro de Elera emphasised again that the interest representation, as every human activity, can also fall in the remit of criminal law and that different phenomena should be tackled with different instruments. The speaker also agreed with Mr Katsaitis on the need for institutional cross-checking information and forecasted that this may be addressed in the next mandate.

David Coen asked the panel to elaborate on the creation and  the goals of the Ethics Body.

Alvaro de Elera took the floor, stating that the Ethics Body represents a valuable step forward for the transparency framework in the EU, as it will cover all key institutions and bodies and it is open also to other institutions, such as the European Investment Bank. In this context, he clarified that the fact that members of the EU intuitions will operate under the same minimum ethical standards and that these standards will be transparent and understandable to every citizen, is instrumental in fostering the common culture of transparency and integrity. He also clarified that having minimum ethical standards does not imply that any given institution will not have more stringent rules in the future. In this connection, he affirmed that the establishment of an EU Ethics Body should be considered as a step towards ongoing progress and that will lead to further improvements.   

The moderator then asked the speakers how they perceived the EU transparency rules compared to other European or other international policies.

Paul Varakas reported that he recently attended the OECD Trusted Dialogue, which is drafting a recommendation on the principles of responsible lobbying. Subsequently, the speaker responded to the moderator’s question by stating that, with the exception of a few member states, the EU Transparency Register is more advanced than the ones in place at the national level. However, he pointed out that the EU Register, compared to other countries outside Europe, such as Canada, which has a fully digitalised system, can be improved in some aspects. The speaker also clarified that, at an international level, the discussion is not focused on disclosure in a public transparency register, but rather on what kind of information interest representation’s carriers should share on their own platforms, he concluded.

Isabelle De Vinck echoed Mr Varakas’ views on the state of the Transparency Register concerning member states and the international community. She recalled her participation in a P.A.C.E (Public Affairs Community of Europe) event, where she was confronted with different realities. She subsequently emphasised that at the national level, the public discussion is driven by the culture and the perception of interest representation, whereas in Brussels it is mostly debated for its relevance for the democratic process.

Alexander Katsaitis mentioned his recent comparative exercise for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which focused on the analysis of several international lobbying registers and highlighted their differences in quality. He explained that the evaluation ranked the EU at the top with Canada, Chile and a few other countries. Mr Katsaitis concluded by stating that this achievement reflects the work on transparency done so far at the EU level and that this constitutes a valuable card in the hands of EU institutions to foster similar national systems.

The moderator asked the other two panellists to express their opinions on the way ahead.

Alvaro de Elera emphasised that the EU journey towards integrity has just started. He noted that the Commission’s intentions are clear and expressed his confidence in further progress in the next legislature regarding the state of transparency and integrity at the EU level.

Christian Beck agreed with Mr de Elera on future progress by pointing out that, over the years, some proposals such as the disclosure of all meetings occurring with MEPs, which seemed impossible to be put in place at the time, are now a reality. In conclusion, he praised the Commission’s recent proposal on mandatory registers on a national level, as well as the Ethics Body, which he considered a valuable step towards further developments in terms of transparency and integrity.

Do you wish to know more about the issues discussed in this debate? Then check out the selected sources provided below!

Transparency Register, European Union 

Interinstitutional Agreement of 20 May 2021 between the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission on a mandatory transparency register, European Union

EU Transparency Register: 2021 interinstitutional agreement, European Parliament Think Tank (EPRS)

European Parliament Implementation of the 14-point Reform plan ‘Strengthening Integrity, Independence and Accountability’, European Parliament

Parliament strengthens rules on integrity, transparency and accountability, European Parliament

Regulation of lobbying across the EU, European Parliament Think Tank (EPRS)

Regulating government affairs: Integrating lobbying research and policy concerns. Regulation & Governance, 18(1), pp.73-80., 2024, David Coen, Alexander Katsaitis, Matia Vannoni 

Mapping and Analysing Lobbying Registers. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2024), Alexander Katsaitis

Introducing the PFxEU tracker dataset: Tracking political financing in the European Union´ European Union Politics, 24/4 (2023a), pp. 785-96, Alexander Katsaitis

International parliamentary institutions and political donations: the case of the European Parliament´, International Affairs, 99/6 (2023b), pp. 2443-63, Alexander Katsaitis

Following the money: Exploring business financial contributions to theEuropean Union’s political parties’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 58/5 (2020), pp. 1342–51, Alexander Katsaitis

One year after Qatargate: Corruption Risk Remains, Daniel Freund MEP [DE]

Green Success! Asset declarations make the European Parliament more transparent, Daniel Freund MEP  [DE]

Qatar-gate follow-up: Which transparency reforms are being blocked and where progress is being made, Daniel Freund MEP [DE]

Commission proposal for EU ethics body denies independent control: “Like a game without a referee”, Daniel Freund MEP