Radical transparency for a new-look EU

by

Sixty years ago this week the founding members of the European Union signed a Treaty ‘To lay the foundations of an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’.

How successful have they been?

The financial crisis of 2008 and its economic and social consequences have undermined the trust of these peoples in the European project. People fear their lives are being controlled by faceless bureaucrats and unelected elites. Their demands are growing for the citizen to have more awareness and involvement in determining the policies affecting their society and their lives.

The process of policy-making is key here – policy should be citizen-centric, but citizens are not the centre of policy-making. I argue there are five main players in the process of policy-making: People; Politicians; Policy makers (bureaucrats); Press, and Pundits (experts).

Do they all hold equal weight? How do they interact and influence each other? Are their decisions oriented around people and their wellbeing or is it just an ideological and political power struggle?

While each having their individual roles to play, in the way they shape policy the five players are highly interconnected. The People can use the ballot box when electing their representatives, or they can persuade through involvement in debate, consultation and they can protest – physically, on the street or (increasingly) virtually, via social media.

But how can People be involved in the mechanisms of policy-making? Can they hold equal sway with the Politicians, Policy makers, Pundits and Press?

The institutions of the European Union are relatively recent creations and the process of decision making is designed to ensure that – in theory – all these players are maximally and equally involved. Elected politicians operate through the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, consulting widely and debating openly – more so than in most national governments.

Consequently a whole other world has grown up to participate in this process and make their interests known.  These are technical experts, academics, interest groups and single interest activists – loosely called lobbyists. Who do they represent? Who funds them? Are they legitimate? How powerful are they? Can citizens have access to them and do they represent citizens and have citizens’ interests at heart?

This is a hugely complex subject just as the definition of a citizen is complex.  A citizen has many sides to his or her identity, with interests as an employer or employee, as a family member, resident, consumer and voter – to name a few.

All these interests battle to play a part in and influence European policy-making, which they frequently succeed in doing – often to startling effect, despite very few resources. Against all received wisdom, do not underestimate the power of the environmental and consumer lobby in holding corporate interests to account and agitating for, initiating and influencing groundbreaking legislation to support their cause.

The key is transparency and accountability. The People are rightly suspicious of what goes on behind closed doors amongst the powerful and they want to know about it. This is where the Press has a role to play, but also ethical structures. The word “lobbying” is toxic in some circles and much misunderstood. This is why twenty years ago I and several professional “lobbyists” set up the Society of European Affairs Professionals with a Code of Conduct committing to honesty and transparency in all our dealings with the European institutions. Membership covers the whole scope of lobbyists or public affairs professionals – from NGOs to trade associations, to lawyers and in-house corporate representatives. We commit to be open about who we represent and how we are resourced.

I am delighted to say that European Institutions took a leaf out of our book! The European Parliament and the Commission have established a Joint Transparency Register for interest representations, who are required to declare who they represent and their sources of funding.  Nearly 12,000 organisations are registered and it grows weekly, ranging across representative organisations for trade, business, professional, academic, social, religious, regional, municipal, environmental, consumer… the list goes on.

So the mechanisms are there, as are paths for the motivated citizen to get involved. The processes are long and complex and can be discouraging for the individual but virtual communications have reduced the cost and increased the accessibility to information and ideas.

So can all this make policy more citizen-centric and Europe more of a union of peoples? Through exercising our right to transparency, information and involvement in policy-making, we have the tools to make policy more citizen-centric and Europe more a union of peoples. It remains for us all to exercise our rights as citizens – and as lobbyists – to shape the structures affecting our lives.

 

Adapted from a keynote speech given at Unconference 2017,

28 March 2017, Lisbon

 

 

 


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