It is a year since the European Commission and European Parliament launched a joint transparency register – an appropriate time to take stock of our collective efforts to make European Union policymaking more transparent.
The register builds on the success of its predecessor, which collected more than 4,000 registered organisations since being set up by the Commission in 2008. The scope of the joint register differs from the old one in that it also covers law firms, non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and other organisations not viewed as ‘traditional' lobbyists, thus reflecting the reality of the situation on the ground and ensuring the maximum number of groups are registered.
A year since the launch, more than 5,000 organisations – representing 15,000-20,000 individual lobbyists – have now signed up, and we are on the verge of extending the scope yet again, this time to include the Council of Ministers. An observer from that institution has begun taking part in meetings of the secretariat that manages the register, and I hope that the Council will fully participate in the near future. This is a welcome development as it adds greater credence to our efforts to be as transparent as possible about the way in which policymaking is carried out in Europe. Furthermore, it is something that both the Commission and Parliament have pushed for from the outset, and shows just how successful the register has been. Indeed, our approach has triggered interest from several member states where a debate on setting up similar registers is taking place.
With no legal basis in the Treaties to oblige organisations or persons to register, we rely on voluntary registration, which leaves us open to claims that we are not as transparent as we could be – even though around 80% of Brussels lobbyists are covered by the current register. It is important that institutions and citizens pay attention to who is registered and who is not: questioning the motives of groups that remain unregistered – and the risk to their reputation that that implies – should be enough to convince organisations to sign up. Given the complex legal issues linked to any binding approach, the voluntary approach is also by far the simplest and most effective means of keeping track of lobbying activities.
It is also important to put the register into the broader context of the Commission's efforts to reinforce the transparent character and the ethical aspects of its work. In the past few years, we have introduced a code of conduct for European commissioners and guidelines for accepting and refusing gifts and hospitality, we have set up a training and guidance system on ethics for Commission staff, and we are now carrying out a review of our whistleblowing guidelines. The Commission's entire annual work programme is there for all to see, and public consultations are carried out on most policy initiatives, giving citizens a real opportunity to have their say. A public consultation on the register has been launched, and we will soon be carrying out a review of guidelines covering EU staff working elsewhere after leaving the institutions, in order to answer concerns that the lines are too often blurred between policymakers and lobbyists. And all this information, and much more, can now also be found in one place, our new online transparency portal (http://ec.europa.eu/transparency).
Although transparency and accountability have been high on our agenda, there will always be critics who claim we should be doing more. But if we compare the EU's institutions with many national administrations, the EU institutions have no reason to hide. In addition, the level of interest from member states, MEPs and from the Council of Ministers shows that we are clearly heading in the right direction. European citizens need to know that the EU is working for them, and that the right decisions are being taken; transparency and accountability are important elements for increasing trust in the EU project and its institutions. The register is a significant step towards doing just that.
Maroš Šefcovic is the European commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration.