It’s nearly two years since the European Commission launched its joint transparency register with the European Parliament, a concerted effort by the two institutions to keep track of the various players in Brussels and Strasbourg who try to influence MEPs, commissioners, officials and even journalists.
Many of them are not lobbyists in the traditional sense: yes, there are public affairs professionals, certainly, but also NGOs, semi-public organisations, church organisations, think-tanks, foundations and so on. They are all active, and have a legitimate role to play in defending their particular interest. But the Commission and the Parliament believe that if they do so, they should be in the register, allowing the public to see just who is talking to whom about what.
The transparency register has been a success, not least in the number of registrations, which continues to grow and is currently running at just over 5,700. And we are hopeful that the Council will also decide to join the register in the coming months, bringing even greater transparency to the EU decision-making process.
But there have been critics, especially among some NGOs that see the register as only partially successful, primarily because registration is not mandatory (as it is in the US) but voluntary.
I’ve always maintained that the voluntary approach is the best one for the European institutions, in part because there are many legal issues. You need a legal basis on which to propose a mandatory one that would oblige people to register. There is also the question of how to define who should be obliged to register and what the sanctions should be. But I’m also convinced that the vast majority of interest groups have nothing to hide and will register in the end – a sentiment that has been largely vindicated by the fact that so many of them have opted to sign the register already.
As for those interest groups that have not yet registered… well, let’s just say that public pressure can be a highly motivating tool!
But don’t just take my word for it.
A recent academic study by Justin Greenwood, Professor of European Public Policy at the Robert Gordon University and Joanna Dreger, an Academic Assistant at the College of Europe, found that that joint transparency register had “the widest embrace” in the world in terms of scope, even with its voluntary registration basis.
To quote the researchers: ” Does the Transparency Register component of EU lobby regulation place it in the vanguard of a ‘new wave’ of strong lobby regulation? If the criterion is the extent to which the Transparency Register scheme provides public information, then the scheme’s got merit. Using various data sources, we estimate that it covers 75% of business related organisations lobbying the EU, and 60% of NGOs.”
The paper also notes that there are some issues surrounding data quality that need to be ironed out, but stresses that the register’s joint secretariat has already flagged these up as part of its own review following the first year of the register’s operation. This will indeed be the top priority for the current review of the register.
You can read the whole paper here at the website of the academic journal Interest Groups & Advocacy, but let me just finish with one of its main conclusions:
“The Transparency Register provides a wealth of public information about most of the organisations. In a short space of time since its establishment there is a lot of transparency, and with incremental development it provides the basis for the public to be fully informed as well as serving as a useful research tool.”
I’d say that’s a pretty strong endorsement of our approach, wouldn’t you?