The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Milos Labovic, founder of Finalist 2012 EU Public Affairs Award. Author of “EU Superlobby: Winning in Brussels”.

The recently proposed Transparency register is a storm in a teacup. What it will establish demonstrate is that lobbyist are at work in Brussels. No big surprises there. At best, the transparency register will give the public affairs world a face; at worst, it will wrongly shift political responsibility from elected officials to interest groups. What is more worrying is that the transparency register defers attention from the real transparency debate namely the flagrant lack of transparency within European institutions caused by negotiations between Council, European Parliament and the Commission commonly known as trialogues. Hence, I believe that meaningful transparency necessitates bringing back debates in parliamentary committees and formalizing the backrooms so that agenda’s, minutes and other documents become accessible to the public.

Article 10 of the Treaty of Lisbon leaves no room for interpretation; “All decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen”. The Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament are even more explicit; “Parliament shall ensure that its activities are conducted with the utmost transparency and debates in Parliament shall be public”. And even the Parliament itself stated that: “Information is the oxygen that sustains oversight, control and scrutiny”. Nevertheless about 70% of all legislative acts are being debated and agreed upon in institutionalized backrooms known as the trialogues. No citizen, no media, no interest group or even national parliament has access to these backrooms. Therefore no one knows what is debated, what is agreed upon and most importantly whom to hold accountable for outcomes. Proponents will argue that it is the most efficient way of policy-making and that with so many MEP’s and member states it would be impossible to debate technicalities in public.

The ramifications however are deep and wide and go far beyond the traditional efficieny vs. accountability debate. The backrooms have such a devastating effect that they are slowly, but surely, killing the European project. Without openness and insight into the clash of ideas, EU politics becomes an exclusive matter of highly informed EU political junkies. National media struggle to report on EU politics simply because backrooms hinder basic political questions; When was the decision taken and who was responsible? Faced with the inability to answer these question national media report on things they can grasp such as Brexit or parliament commuting from and to Strasbourg. Citizens lose interest altogether and turn away from both policy debates as well as the ballot. Indeed, I would as far as to say that the backrooms have played their part in Brexit.

It does not make sense spending billions on communicating Europe if you are not willing to give citizens and media insight in the real policy and political debates of Europe. The European Union has an incredible communication budget. Apart from the budget from DG Comm, billions are spent on communicating the outcomes of projects. All with the aim of increasing legitimacy and rallying support for the European project. There is an overflow/abundance from the Commission of press releases, booklets, posters and giveaways. Yet, none of these have restored trust in the EU institutions. And why should it? As if goodie bags can replace hard fought rights.

What needs to be done is bringing back the debates into the heart of democracy:the parliamentary committees. Commissioners should defend their proposals themselves instead of sending unelected civil servants. For the technical details where indeed negotiations need to take place backrooms can still take place, but only if all documents related to the negotiations are published on a online register. Only if we allow everyone insight into the European political arena we can win back the trust of citizens and make them feel that their vote can make a difference/ casting a vote really matters.

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