"I was really surprised about the suspicion which surrounds decision-making in the EU"

Insights from the European Commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud

Since becoming EU commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud in 2004, you have become well-known for working towards a more transparent EU. Where does this strong personal interest derive from?

My personal interest is very much linked to my portfolio issues. When I started as European Commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud I was really surprised about the suspicion which surrounds decision-making in the European Union. It can’t be compared to suspicion which exists about decision-making in the member states or national governments. So my colleagues and I tried to describe fields where we have the highest degree of suspicion and we also tried to find out what has to be done to solve this problem. This is the interest of the Transparency Initiative, which started with the discussion about the beneficiaries of the EU funds. I am very happy that this is politically decided, that it will be mandatory technically from 2009. In the beginning I didn’t believe that this would happen because only two countries made financial support from the EU budget public, Estonia and Denmark. But then, England, Belgium and a lot of other countries followed our initiative. So in the end, even before the EU Commission had decided, there were thirteen countries participating. If you say that you spend 120 billion Euros a year, more than 80 per cent of it is subsidies, and tell people that you have very good policies but they should not know how all the money is distributed - would you as a citizen or taxpayer be happy with this information? It would be ridiculous to expect this.

This is more the professional interest you display. Is there also some kind of personal interest which you had before you became EU commissioner, and that perhaps derives from your own life path?

I definitely have some past experience before I took this job. In Estonia, more information is made public than in other countries. When I was Finance Minister the administration was considered quite a closed institution. A lot of speculation was circulating. Those rumours in the press and the public opinion harmed our work terribly. As a consequence of that we put most information, including all current information about the financial position of the government, on our website. The speculations then disappeared. At the same time we could work in peace. Certainly, not everything must be made public immediately. It is important to find the right balance. For example, when you work on new proposals in tax law and journalists ask for more details which you refuse to give because the project has not reached a certain stage then everyone will accept this. Because they know that this is fair and honest and that they will be informed as soon as the proposal is mature enough to be made public and will then be open to discussion. To put it more generally: some people don’t realise how the world has changed with the internet and how much information is actually available to everybody who can then process it. People must accept this reality and the fact that in the contemporary world the information exists anyway. The question is who masters it: hearsay and suspicion or real policies.

As of December 2006 the EU has committed itself to full transparency about who receives financial support from the EU budget. There will be annual ex-post publication of beneficiaries of money received from the Structural Funds as of 2008 and of money received under the Common Agricultural Policy as of 2009. All this is part of the EU’s Transparency Initiative. What reasons or pressures did the Commission have to start the initiative?

We had the idea to increase the credibility of all decision-making. If you are suspected to have made your decision based on different influences and nobody knows what is going on then you certainly submit yourself to enormous doubts. I like openness, open debates, open politics, I feel very comfortable in an open atmosphere. I think this is also very pragmatic. You must understand that any secret you try to hide will become public sooner or later.

The definition of transparency may not be homogenous across Europe. I don’t want to stress clichés, but what is understood as corruption in Western Europe might just be part of normal life in Eastern Europe. How can a common definition of Transparency and Anti-Corruption be created?

Talking about corruption you should not draw these lines. They are not just to be drawn between Eastern and Western Europe. It is much more mixed and you will have bad cases everywhere. As far as a common definition of transparency is concerned, we must attempt to apply some concrete content to this. This initiative treats very precise aspects of this: disclosure of information about beneficiaries, drawing an exact picture of the lobbying landscape.

How can this definition be efficiently communicated Europe wide?

The problem is that the definition cannot be communicated as such, it can only be communicated by concrete actions and an effort to emphasise that openness is a contemporary feature of our everyday life. We have to convince everybody that if they try to make politics and policies confidential they will sooner or later fail.

So you can’t just tell people “here is the definition, go and adopt it”?

It depends on concrete actions: information on budgets, on political decision-making as well as on the backgrounds of decision-makers themselves. 

Very often, it is said that citizens perceive the EU as a distant and diffuse construction. Can you comment on how the initiative is so far being perceived by European citizens? Has this improved the public opinion?

I would put it into the context of more modern administration in general because we have interesting polls which show that trust in the institutions has steadily increased. We therefore don’t have the same situation anymore that we had a couple of years ago. I believe that our transparency concept has contributed to this. We have many direct actions and our colleagues from the permanent representations could tell you a lot about their communicative efforts to reach citizens. Let me make one little heretical comment on all these issues: the most important messengers for the EU’s projects are the national governments. If national governments fight against what happens in the EU and spread euro-sceptic views, and do this for years and years, you can’t be surprised that referendums end with a refusal. It is incredibly difficult for the European Union to reach its citizens separately from their national governments. The people of a country will just naturally always put more trust in their government than they put trust into the EU.

So it is the national governments that have to be convinced of the European Union first?

Absolutely, but governments should convince themselves. Sometimes they certainly need support in this.

In the Transparency Initiative the work of lobbyists and interest groups has become a focus. The Commission has set up a public register for all interest groups working to influence decisions made in EU institutions. How did the people and groups concerned react to this registration? Has there been massive opposition?

This register will start next year. It does not only cover corporate lobbyists but also representatives of NGOs and other interest groups, which is an important detail because most people believe that most lobbyism is done by corporate representatives. There were certainly some passionate debates. The first debate was whether we should have this register on a mandatory or voluntary basis. This discussion is more than over now. It has been accepted that people can voluntarily get registered. Now the main question concerns the financial disclosure. Some corporate lobbyists, actually a minority, are against the opening of their financial backgrounds …

…why is that so?

I don’t know. You have to ask them. They seem to see this as a sensible matter. But what is the secret? We are not asking for accounting documents. So what is the problem? If the register will be without financial disclosure no one will believe in it. We create this register to give legitimacy and credibility to interest-representing activities, including corporate lobbyists. Nobody is fighting them. But to convince the public that there is true and reliable information in the register, that this is a real opening, financial disclosure is an indispensable prerequisite, an absolutely essential element. 

Why is it so important to make lobbying more transparent?

Decision-making mechanisms are different in the EU than they are in national governments. The public opinion very often believes that decisions in the European institutions are heavily influenced by different interest-representing groups and that no one knows who is having an impact on what on behalf of whom. Again there is a lot of suspicion. It would be most advantageous if the idea about this was very clear. 

How influential has the public affairs sector been in recent years?

I don’t believe that real decision-making has been and is influenced so much by corporate lobbyism. There is certainly some amount of influence. Additionally, if one is not satisfied with a decision which was made, one will always say that the decision was heavily biased. The truth is that all angles are taken into account and that all decisions made are balanced. 

From an EU commissioner’s point of view, what are the benefits politicians get from lobbying?

There are definitely benefits to lobbying. Decision-making in the Commission as I have seen it during the last three-and-a-half years is very much a process of consultation. All EU initiatives are open to consultation, to involve people who are dealing with the actual issue and all possible opinions. The Commission does not want to decide anything without this procedure. The contributions are welcomed and mostly helpful.

Getting registered is not mandatory. Why have you and your colleagues chosen voluntary registration?

First of all I have to point out that no text is perfect. I actually doubt that the problem can be solved simply by creating a perfect text. This is also – I want to make this quite clear – not the case in the United States. There you have a 500-page manual telling you how to follow the law. It is heavy bureaucracy and still it is not perfect. There are still loopholes and possibilities to bypass this legislation. If we commonly share the responsibility for the credibility of the profession of lobbyists then the self regulation will share the responsibility. If you have text, only the text is responsible. As soon as you find shortcomings in the text you can evade the rule and be totally legitimised while doing this. If you declare yourself in favour of more credibility you join the register. If you don’t do this it is your responsibility. You then can’t blame anyone if the public perceives you as someone controversial. We will see how the voluntary registration works and I believe that it will work. I don’t believe that mandatory regulation is some kind of magical tool which solves all problems. Still nothing is set in stone. The voluntary registration could   change into a mandatory one in the future if voluntary registration proved not to be successful in first instance. But I am very confident that a great majority of lobbies will register on this voluntary basis.

What are the benefits for the lobbyist groups, what are their incentives to register?

We are not trading success or some kind of operational benefit. We are trading legitimacy.

Despite any effort you make there will always be lobbyists who will not get registered. How will the Commission deal with non-registered interest groups who take part in public consultations?

You will definitely meet people or organisations who will not register themselves. This is quite normal. But I believe that it will not be so easy to remain out of the register. Put yourself into the position of a lobbying company which wants to promote a certain idea. And you are not in the register. Everybody whom you intend to meet will ask you why you have not registered, what your problem is. Journalists on the other hand will ask why the Commission has met an organisation which is not part of the register. All this creates peer pressure. We started from the assumption that nothing is wrong with lobbying, that the obscure image of this profession is wrong. Now, to prove that those assumptions are right, lobbyists are called to accept a certain code of conduct, to declare your mission and your financial background. If lobbyists then refuse to participate, they make sure that people believe that the negative image was correct, that there is a problem with the lobbyist’s work.

NGOs as well as private and in-house lobbyists are asked to reveal their finances. Why is this necessary? Can influence on political decisions be measured in Euros and Cents?

A register without financial disclosure is very questionable. You can have success with a small budget but what a representative of corporate lobbyism just recently said to me was that he does not want to give the impression that money doesn’t mean anything because this is a business and money is certainly needed. If you for example prepare for a discussion on a highly complex industrial directive you must have some experts and resources to formulate your opinion. Money therefore matters.

All you said sounds quite logical but still it does not seem to be easy to implement the ideas in the everyday life of a lobbyist. Take lawyers in Brussels for example. How can they find out whether their work is legal advice or lobbying? Especially in this field the lines are often fading.

I don’t see this as a big problem. It can be expected from law firms to give an honest declaration of what they do. They are able to say which part of their work is dedicated to interest representing and which is dedicated to giving legal advice. We don’t want to create and hand out a manual because then it turns into a United States type of legislation with auditing and very strict control. This is not what we are aiming at.

Who is supposed to check that the conditions of the proposed code of conduct are kept, and what sanctions could be applied?

The register foresees that   misbehaviour can lead to exclusion from the register which can have a bad public impact on the lobbyist or interest group excluded. We do not yet foresee sanctions like there are in the United States and I do not believe that we will start a mandatory initiative during this Commission’s working period. But again: nothing is set in stone.

Siim Kallas

Estonian-born Siim Kallas is currently serving as European Commissioner for Administrative Affairs, Audit and Anti-Fraud. He is also one of five vice-presidents of the 27-member Barroso Commission. Kallas has been European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs in 2004, Prime Minister of Estonia (2002-2003), Estonian Minister of Finance, Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1995 -1996), and member of the Estonian parliament, Riigikogu. Kallas is a member and former leader of the free-market liberal Estonian Reform Party.