The European Federation of Journalists, the largest organisation of journalists across the European Union, representing unions and associations of journalists in all member countries, welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Green Paper on a European Transparency Initiative (ETI).
The EFJ is registered in CONECCS, the database of civil society organisations of the European Commission.
The EFJ is above all concerned with transparency regarding public access to information on European decision-making regarding the allocation of funds to private and public bodies as well as documents and information that provide the maximum amount of public scrutiny of all actions and activities of the European institutions. Regarding more information on financial matters we are in favour of full disclosure of financial benefits and other assistance that the European Union may provide to journalists and media bodies. In this regard we note that Brussels concentrates more journalists and lobbyists than any other city in the world, however transparency rules and disclosure of relations between corporate lobbies and EU civil servants or politicians are not sufficient in our view. That means also Members of the European Parliament should disclose their connections and financial interests. In general we believe more transparency is required on beneficiaries of EU funds.
Chapter I. Transparency and Interest Representation
Do you agree that efforts should be made to bring greater transparency to lobbying?
We welcome the fact that the Green Paper reminds the general principle that “relations between the Commission and interest representatives must be open to outside scrutiny” and that “when lobby groups seek to contribute to EU policy development, it must be clear to the general public which input they provide to the European institutions. It must also be clear who they represent, what their mission is and how they are funded.”
However, our concern is that the public, through the media and through the work of journalists in particular, should be able to know who engages in EU lobbying or influencing of political decision.
This implies that more compulsory and more detailed information on lobbying is necessary on issues such as the number of lobbyist, the financial turn-over of the corporate lobbying/consulting, meetings with decision-makers and financial relations between corporate groups and decision makers.
In our experience, the EU lacks transparency and regulations that allows the level of scrutiny and transparency to create monitoring such as the Centre for Public Integrity in the US (www.publicintegrity.org ), which is a platform for investigative journalism on federal politics and lobbying.
We believe that reporting on lobbying needs more compulsory transparency by which registered lobbyists are obliged to give detailed information regarding their political contacts and financial accounting of what is paid for lobbying activity, including payments made to support individuals or groups with whom they have any dealings in the course of their lobbying work.
Reporting on lobbying is public interest according to the EFJ.
Do you agree that lobbyists who wish to be automatically alerted to consultations by the EU institutions should register and provide information, including on their objectives, financial situation and on the interests they represent? Do you agree that this information should be available to the general public? Who do you think should manage the register?
The EFJ believes that all lobbyists exceeding a minimal amount of financial turn-over to be determined should register and report. (See above). To this extent, voluntary registration would do nothing to improve levels of public scrutiny . It would not allow proper access to information nor would it assist the work of journalists. In our view, transparency via a registration and reporting system cannot be optional; it is based on a general principle of ethics and public interest.
Also, we note that the recommendations of the Green Paper do not specify if lobbyists need to report regularly or just register once. A single registration would be insufficient to achieve transparency and visibility in the long term. To allow for media scrutiny of lobbying targeting the EU institutions, regular reporting is needed.
We also note that the Green Paper does not address what needs to be reported. We suggest that reports should include data on how much money particular interests spend on lobbying, disclosure of the clients and on which issues they lobby, budgetary information on the activities including a detailed list of fees and expenses received from third parties.
A lobbyist register should be overseen by an independent public watchdog with a mechanism of enforcement. According to the Green Paper, “measures in the field of transparency must be effective and proportionate.” To this extent, we call upon the Commission to introduce adequate measures of sanctions that would balance commercial interests and the public interest.
Do you agree to consolidate the existing codes of conduct with a set of common minimum requirements? Who do you think should write the code?
The EFJ recalls that voluntary codes of conduct for lobbyists already exist. However, these are virtually worthless. Only a few lobbyists have actually endorsed these codes and they failed to prevent improper lobbying practices in Brussels. The best they do is to provide window-dressing for accountability when what is required is a serious structure for responsible lobbying.
In principle, we are in favour of self-regulation and the creation of a code of conduct through the co-operation of the various actors involved (companies, consultants, law firms, industry associations, trade unions and NGOs). However, this is unrealistic given the disparity of interests. In order for such an initiative to have any credibility it would require action by the European Commission to encourage the creation of an appropriate structure through which the various partners involved are able to work together to try to develop such an approach.
Do you agree that a new, inclusive external watchdog is needed, to monitor compliance and that sanctions should be applied for any breach of the code?
The EFJ supports the creation of a new independent watchdog agency to manage the registration, the reporting and the sanctioning of lobbyists. The watchdog should be able to receive complaints related to breaches, to conduct its own investigations and to issue sanctions. Such a watchdog should include public interest representatives.
Chapter II. Feedback on application of the minimum standards for consultation
In your view, has the Commission applied the general principles and minimum standards for consultation in a satisfactory manner? You may refer to the individual standards (provided for ease of reference, in annex 2)
The EFJ believes that consultation processes of the Commission are generally respecting minimum standards. However, we have some reservations over the timing of certain consultations, for example those published in July with a deadline for September (revision of the TWF Directive). Also we regret that some consultations taking place in the framework of events organised by the EU Presidency often fail to properly involve civil society groups and trade union organizations.
Chapter III. Disclosure of beneficiaries of Community funds
Do you agree that it is desirable to introduce, at Community level, an obligation for Member States to make available information on beneficiaries of EU finds under shared management? If so, what information should be required at national level? What would be the best means to make this information available (degree of information required, period covered and preferred medium)?
The EFJ shares the concern of the Green Paper stating that “although modern mass communication tools open up unprecedented opportunities for public access to information, European citizens regrettably feel that they have relatively limited knowledge about the European Union”.
We believe that the EU fund beneficiaries should be disclosed as it is a matter of public scrutiny and access to information for journalists. Experience shows that a more open administration provides for more nuanced reporting. In the case of EU-reporting, repeated Eurobarometers show a lack of knowledge among the public about EU-spending, only 17 percent of the population knows that agriculture is the most important budget expenditure, whereas almost one third, 31 percent, believe that administration consumes the main part of the EU budget (according to Eurobarometer 64, p. 88).
Better access to information about the spending of EU funds is crucial not least to increase public awareness of EU policies and thus facilitate a public debate as well as in-debt research about European policies.
This is particularly the case for major funds such as the common agricultural policy, the regional structural funds and the cohesion fund. Indeed, practices and level of disclosure vary from state to state or even from region to region, which makes it difficult to carry-out proper investigative journalism on this issue. Some countries have put in place systems of disclosures showing that transparency is possible both from an administrative and from a financial point of view.
The EFJ suggests creating an EU-wide template for an information system providing data on EU funds recipients, which would be accessible to journalists as well as to citizens across the EU, in particular via an online database. This database should contain basic information such as the name and location of the beneficiaries, their legal form and the activities supported by the EU, the amount received as well as the relevant budget lines or regulations. It is crucial that the information is published in the same format for all member states and all types of payments, in order to safeguard the possibility for journalists to carry out European analysis of the information.
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