Transparency in the time of Mr. Juncker
The joint Transparency Register covers entities engaged in directly or indirectly influencing EU policy-making and implementation. It contains and provides information on their structure, goals, activities and finances. Up-to-date statistics speak of 9.126 entities inscribed in the Register.
A superficial conclusion would be that the above figure accurately illustrates the host of lobbyists active in Brussels. Such claim would be questionable in at least two regards. First of all, the Register still has some ground to cover before achieving full representation of the spectrum. Secondly, a number of the entities that have registered can hardly be labelled as "lobbyists".
The Commission consults
With its new consultation in view of a mandatory Register, the Commission aims at reeling in those organisations that have until now resisted registration. The current Transparency Register is voluntary: no organisation is obliged to register, although there are incentives to do so. A legally binding mandatory system would introduce an obligation in this sense, with administrative measures for non-registration. This option has been deemed excessive or of challenging feasibility. Now Mr. Timmermans is taking the proverbial bull by the horns. A level playing field calls for the submission of all organisations to the Register. However, for all its constrictive character, a mandatory system - even more so than a voluntary one - is viable only if it reflects and fits to the nature and identity of each entity involved.
The Commission considers its consultation as presenting the right opportunity to stimulate a broader "fitness test" for the Register. The relevant questionnaire still refers to the negatively flavoured lobbying/interest representation terminology: traces of it even linger in the Register's website and materials. The consultation could be an occasion to achieve definitive neutrality. The resistance by various categories to the more or less explicit labelling of all registrants as "lobbyists" or "interest representatives" prompted in 2011 a tricky but ultimately successful revision.
Currently the Register does not apply to certain entities, including Churches and religious communities: the Commission is interested in knowing whether the scope of the Register should be changed or be preserved in its actual status.
Further work can also be done on reinforcing incentives to registration. This aspect would lose some relevance in a mandatory system, but effective advantages would still make that sort of instrument more appealing.
The Transparency Register: is it only about transparency?
An often stated aim for the Register refers to fostering information to the benefit of EU citizens. The need for transparency in the processes of participatory democracy cannot be questioned. However, it is also true that "information is power": detailed data on the microcosm of entities that toil in Brussels to impact on EU initiatives also provides the Commission with power and a tool to somehow control them. Therefore it is important not to look at the exercise with too naive eyes.
Financial disclosure: some telling data
Entering the Register requires a degree of financial disclosure on budgets and funding. The Register has the merit of having presented in stark form the impressive level of EU funding certain heavily ideological organisations benefit from, which raises the question of whether such financial support is at all sustainable or justified; and especially of whether these entities can still be considered as "stakeholders" or rather play a supporting, instrumental role to the Commission itself. The words "independence", "impartiality" and "equal treatment" are as important as the one "transparency"...
Transparency beyond the Register
It is healthy to have a fresh look at the Transparency Register, but the consultation should not result in a step back or worse turn it into yet another bureaucratic gimmick. The balance achieved in 2010-2014 indeed does not need much tweaking.
The specificity of "organisations representing Churches and religious communities" is sufficiently recognised within the Register; and there is no particular reason for changing approach for entities that are excluded as clearly not fitting the instrument (Churches as such, regional public authorities): incidentally, Churches are already "doing transparency", in the context of their "open, transparent and regular" Dialogue with the EU institutions foreseen by Article 17 TFEU.
More generally, transparency is a two-way process: transparency by EU institutions is the other part of the picture. Even the EU Ombudsman felt compelled to tackle the dark shadow which still largely shrouds inter-institutional negotiations. Trust is another key word here Trust is supposed to be mutual for things to work.