In the wake of the Daily Telegraph’s honey trap to encourage Vince Cable into indiscretion Michael White argued that “while the age of transparency helps shine torches into dark parliamentary corners, we should remember it cuts both ways”.
In other words, it’s not just parliamentarians and corporate lobbyists who should be put under a spotlight. It’s entirely legitimate and essential for a healthy democracy for NGOs, trade unions, think tanks – and indeed corporations – to challenge orthodoxy but they too should be subject to scrutiny.
The same debate is playing out in Brussels. Some of the protagonists will also be familiar to British audiences as the European Parliament tries to recover its dignity in the wake of the cash for influence sting by the Sunday Times.
Last week the European Union lawmakers launched a common register of interests, merging the registers run by the European Parliament and the European Commission respectively. Until recently these were separate, with the Parliament having introduced rules in 1996 and the Commission only in 2008.The new register is being billed as the ‘transparency register’, reflecting the underlying motivation and a determination to engage people who do not define themselves as ‘lobbyists’.
There is a consensus – that much prized EU objective – in Brussels amongst public affairs professionals, NGOs and the institutions that this latest initiative is a welcome milestone. Indeed MHP has been registered since we first arrived in Brussels. There are now strong incentives to sign up as those that are not listed in the joint register will not be able to get lobbyists’ access badges to the European Parliament. This may encourage some law firms, for example, which have yet to join the Commission register but have tended to hold parliamentary passes.
But campaigners for more transparency in Brussels remain unhappy. Their basic objective is to make the register mandatory.
Transparency advocates are also pushing for stricter, better resourced, enforcement and more financial transparency. Campaigners at Transparency International are calling for the publication of ‘legislative footprints’; for example, the list of interest groups and individuals that an MEP met during the passage of legislation, in addition to information about the origin of amendments. These ideas are being considered by MEPs, some of whom already publish a list of people and topics discussed during meetings.
As torches are shining into dark corners of lobbying activity in Brussels so too is the Parliament under pressure to clean up its own house. In the wake of the Sunday Times story that caught three MEPs apparently prepared to trade cash for access, Jerzy Buzek’s (Parliament President) committee is due to publish a code of conduct for MEPs and is considering the creation of an ethics committee to make sure MEPs abide by the rules.
Critics of the European Parliament are awaiting its publication later this week with interest, particularly as MEPs do not currently have to declare second jobs. There are grumblings in the European Parliament about the possible administrative burden of increased transparency which anyone familiar with the UK Parliament’s expenses scandal listens to with a sense of déjà-vu.
So it is indeed cutting both ways in Brussels. MEPs and officials who have rightly tightened up transparency around interest groups must now demonstrate a willingness to shine a light on their own actions and restore trust in the European Parliament. And most people in Brussels agree that the recent milestones are just that – markers on a longer journey during which practices to maintain transparency must continually improved in order to maintain trust in the institutions, NGOs and corporates, amongst other players in Brussels.
All of which brings me back to Michael White and his apt reminder that whilst much ‘lobbying’ activity is logged on various registers, “it doesn’t always answer questions of influence which can be much more subtle – always have been, always will."