Lack of transparency is not the problem, lazy media are

Nosemonkey has this post on lobbying in the EU institutions. But although I think I am as committed as he is to the principles of transparency and democracy, my analysis would take a slightly different angle.

First of all, I think lobbying is in essence a good thing and in fact essential for the quality of public decision-making. We expect our representatives in various parliaments and in our governments (including the European Commission) to consult widely with civil society before they take any decisions. How else could they do that than by talking to its representatives?

For Members of Parliament, especially if they belong to small political groups who do not have the (wo-)manpower to read (let alone follow in detail) every proposal going through Parliament, lobbyists are an invaluable source of information. Intense lobbying activity on a specific proposal is always a good warning signal that something is the matter with it. Information provided by lobbyists from industry and NGOs is also of great help identifying the contentious elements in a proposal and learning the positions of various sections of civil society.

As June O’Keefe of SEAP points out: reputation is everything in the Brussels village. If you spread false or misleading information once, you are no longer listened to next time. Good M(E)Ps know who is relevant to listen to – this is what the “building good relationships” part is mostly about. Good lobbyists know that too, so they make sure their information is useful and their arguments reasonable. Good lobbyists also know they must combine their efforts if they want their arguments to carry more weight, by speaking per sector or European umbrella organisation instead of bombarding policy-makers with different or even contradicting arguments for each company, interest group or national NGO.

Of course it is then up to the M(E)Ps to decide which and how many different lobbyists they listen to, what they do with that information and how they justify this to the outside world. Parliaments are transparent institutions: Journalists monitor every move politicians make, so, at least in principle, the opportunities to question the decisions made are plenty. In other words: the correction mechanism is there, and if an M(E)P gets away with pork-barreling or even corruption, it is because the correction mechanism (the press, the voters) failed to do its job.

Why then the common perception that there are so many lobbyists in the European Parliament? My answer would be: because there are so few journalists in the European Parliament. When I compare the European Parliament to national parliaments, my impression is not that there is more lobbying going on in the EP. What is striking in Brussels, is the lack of media frenzy there compared to national parliaments.

The explanation I think is that individual actors acting rationally here leads to a sub-optimal overall result: Lobbyists optimise results by concentrating on the politics that has actual effects in the real world (if they don’t, they simply don’t get paid). Newspapers and other media, if they want to keep selling, optimise by concentrating on the politics people think has actual results, even if that means reporting non-events happening at the national level while neglecting important things happening at the EU level. The adage “what happens does not matter, what matters is what people think that happens” applies. And the vicious circle remains closed by the facts that most people get their idea of what matters from what they read in the press, and that politicians who want to be re-elected – like newspapers that want to be sold – are forced to concentrate on what people think that matters. Hence, given the importance of EU decision-making, the rather shocking imbalance between the number of political correspondents in national capitals vs. those in Brussels, whereas lobbyists are much more evenly distributed. Hence, also, the equally shocking lack of knowledge among journalists, and with the general public, of how the EU works and which decisions are taken there.

So if we cannot, and maybe should not, do very much against the influence of lobbyists in the EP, is this different for the contacts between lobbyists and civil servants? Well, yes and no. As I said, civil servants preparing a piece of legislation must be in touch with civil society if they want to have any idea of the effect it is going to have on society. Like M(E)Ps they will have to keep the “general interest” (whatever that is) in mind when assessing that information. But unlike M(E)Ps, it is much more difficult to monitor what civil servants do, as in most countries their preparatory work happens behind closed doors. So it is fair that there are rules to prevent people from misusing their position. Of course, bribing should be illegal, both for the civil servant and for the person or organisation doing it. And within the civil service and the Commission, strict codes of conduct with sanctions should apply.

But where bribery is relatively easy to define, it is much more difficult to draw a line between defending and explaining one’s interest or those of one’s organisation or client, and inappropiate use of influence. So I really think a civil service’s main line of defence against this should be in having an effective code of conduct for their own employees, and not in setting rules for the outside world. As for SEAP, it is in their own best PR interest (remember, reputation is everything) to have their own code of conduct and to kick out members who misbehave. But I really think the prime responsibility is with the Commission.

And lest we forget: Member States do a lot of lobbying too in Brussels, only then it is called “defending the national interest”. But as this very often goes against the general interest of all EU members together (take Spanish structural funds, the British rebate…), it really fits into the same category. Here again, we need a lot more press to monitor what is going on and to hold those responsible to account.

Oh, just for the record, I am not a lobbyist…

2 Responses to “Lack of transparency is not the problem, lazy media are”

  1. will Says:

    i am a lobbyist and want to thank you for writing a bit of sense around the subject. lobbying organisations often provide a sense of reality to the EU legislators who seem often to exist in some sort of Brussels Ivory Tower, bereft of any knowledge about how their legislation will impact on the real world (eg the Data Retention Directive)

  2. European Democracy » Idea crisis or leadership crisis? Says:

    […] large extent applies to public views of the EU as well. In this case, we not only have an extremely low basic level of information among t […]

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