EU transparency on lobbyist meetings still piecemeal

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Small steps are being made to reveal who is lobbying who within the EU. But the approach is basically haphazard and piecemeal - meaning the public remains largely in the dark and unable to truly scrutinise the influencers.

EUobserver

A trend is emerging where EU institutional meetings with lobbyists are being published online - as part of a piecemeal approach to greater transparency.

Earlier this week, the Croatian presidency to the EU started posting notices of its meetings. So have the Finnish and the Romanian presidencies before it.

And a handful of member states embassies to the EU (known as a permanent representations) are now listing their lobby meetings online as well. So far this includes Croatia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and Italy.

The move has only been cautiously welcomed by pro-transparency groups, because the information revealed is often sparse.

For one, the embassy meetings are only listed if they are held with senior staff, such as the ambassador or the deputy. Second, details on what the meeting was even about are often lacking.

And third, most of the lobbyists are in fact targeting low-level policy-makers whose meetings are not even registered.

"This is really the tip of the iceberg," said Vicky Cann from the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an NGO working on transparency issues.

She pointed out that some policy officers at the embassies can get multiple meeting requests per week from lobbyists, depending on the topic.

Last year, CEO revealed that in the 12 months up to June 2018, the Dutch permanent representation hosted 546 meetings, of which 73 percent were determined to be corporate lobbyists.

Impenetrable Council

However, some smaller EU member states are piling on pressure to increase transparency and accountability in the EU.

In January, a letter drafted by Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Sweden and the Netherlands demanded greater openness when it comes to the EU's most impenetrable institution, the Council.

The council represents member states and is the co-legislator, along with the European Parliament, on EU laws proposed by the European Commission.

But its working groups, where EU state representatives discuss bills that will become EU-wide law, remain widely in the shadows. Big EU states like France appear broadly opposed to transparency, fearing it could disrupt negotiations among sparring counterparts and remove the space to forge compromises.

Critics say such a position is widely at odds with French president Emmanuel Macron's call for "a more democratic Europe."

A document obtained by Investigative Europe, a team of journalists, further exposes the true positions of EU states when it comes to legislative transparency.

Although dated July 2018, the paper shows France, Hungary, Greece, Poland and to some extent, Portugal and the Czech Republic, oppose it. Germany seems more ambivalent.

The council has also so far baulked at signing up to the EU's joint-transparency register, currently shared between the commission and the parliament. The register is a searchable database that lists thousands of lobbyists seeking to exert some say on EU policy.

The commission requires commissioners and other senior commission officials to only meet lobbyists who are in the register. Those meetings are then published on its website for all to see.

Vague 'courtesy' meetings

The council says it cannot force member state embassies to participate since they are not EU institutions - although now some are doing it anyway. The parliament also has its reservations, claiming a mandatory register violates an MEP's "freedom of mandate".

A number of MEPs have also sought to make it a requirement to publish their own meetings with lobbyists. But the proposal was watered down following stiff resistance from the centre-right European Peoples' Party group.

It means only committee chairs and people who lead files on the behalf of the parliament, so-called 'rapporteurs', list their lobbyist meetings.

There are also shortcomings. Labelling a meeting "courtesy" or using other broad terminology like "banking issues" is often not helpful for people seeking greater insights into those they voted into office.

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