European Transparency Register: A lot less dirty play ahead?


From the Budapest Business Journal print edition: In order to enhance the transparency of European institutions, a special register for lobbyists was set up two years ago. The man supervising the scheme is Gérard Legris, a senior official at the Commission. He says that making the system compulsory would only cause more bureaucracy, and that EU-wide transparency trends are promising.

BBJ: Has the joint Transparency Register of the European Parliament and the Commission met the expectations of its stakeholders since its establishment in 2011?
Gérard Legris: Business circles are happy with the system because their profession needs credibility and it is in their best interest to decrease the scope of the unknown. We are not naïve, though, to think that all illegal activities will be gone for good. The large majority of businesses support a compulsory scheme instead of the current voluntary one. They want everybody to be bound by the same rules.

Did it make sense to make registration non-compulsory in the first place?
The practice in the U.S. demonstrates that even if the system itself is obligatory, the rules never apply to the whole group of lobbyists. There are always thresholds that allow some to escape accountability. And whenever some wrongdoing was revealed, the sanctions were not enforced in America. Under the European structure, if you communicate with the institutions it is a sign that you are ready to cooperate. It is a very constructive approach.

Who else has problems with the current concept that not all lobbyists are required to sign up and that a ‘name and shame’-based sanction structure should be enough to deter corruption?
The NGOs are with us on the framework as it is now, but transparency campaigners would like to push it much further. They want to make it not only compulsory, but to see a lot more detailed reports submitted. We refrain from going into that direction. We don’t want to pose as Big Brother. On the other hand, it would increase bureaucracy. Getting the rights to investigate or checking all figures would require more staff.

Hiring extra personnel for this purpose could work.
Not at all. We are going to decrease our administration. I’m not sure either whether more corruption would be detected that way. This instrument is to create an environment for those who want to act in good faith, it is not designed to crack down on corruption. For that the EU has special schemes such as the anti-fraud office OLAF.

Feedback on the results of the register is being assessed in an ongoing review. Can you give us an inside look?
The political groups of European Parliament are exchanging views about the issues in question, but what aspect would get a majority cannot be foreseen at this stage. The results should arrive soon.

The timing of the review is surely not an accident with European elections coming up next year, not to mention the fact that 2013 is the year of European citizens. Everything seems to be revolving around transparency.
We needed to set up the joint register at some point and it had to be early enough in the parliamentary term so that a balance could be drawn before the end of it. Yes, for calendar reasons the review is close to the termination of the mandate. But it is not meant to be used in the campaign, although there will surely be some political forces that will try to capitalize on the issue.

Making it a campaign theme could even be an asset. This is a positive thing after all; strengthening the EU’s legitimacy could raise voter turnout.
It can be used that way, that is one of the reasons why I’m doing this information campaign. Many people distrust the institutions, but it’s normal political reality to be for or against something. In our case, the preliminary problem is often that citizens don’t know how the institutions function, which makes them suspicious.

Is it wrong to cast doubts?
I’m not saying they should trust the institutions by definition, but they should be aware of how they work and how they can influence them, and thus exercise their democratic rights. It is alright to be against something, yet you need to be able defend your argument.

Are you planning to make more publicity about this transparency initiative?
We don’t have a strategy yet in this regard – we have been too busy setting the system up. Once we are finished with the review, we should come up with a communication campaign to let people know what has changed.

Probably all member states could use a similar scheme. Does the Commission have the power at least to make a recommendation on that?
We don’t have such a competence. It’s for every country to determine its own course. Naturally, we are very happy if member states adapt solutions that function on a European level. In fact, Ireland, UK, Austria and France have just or are about to take initiative in this field at a national level. The trend is very promising.

Frenchman Gérard Legris coordinates the European Parliament/Commission joint Secretariat of the Transparency Register as Head of Unit. He joined the European institutional network in 1980 and first held budgetary and financial positions in the Council and the Commission. From 1990 to 1996 he was member of the EU Delegation to Japan in various senior positions. Later, among other things, he supervised the information campaign on the introduction of the euro, and assisted the intergovernmental conference leading up to the Treaty of Lisbon. Legris holds a degree in finance (ESCAE Business School, Reims, France) and in European policies (ULB, Institute of European Studies, Brussels). He is a regular speaker on EU institutional affairs.

– by Levente Hörömpöli-Toth

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