Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Commission Common Sense. What Next?

Despite the Bloated Plutocrat and the Bleeding Heart taking predictably polar stances on the issue, it appears that the Commission's legitimacy in demanding or imposing regulatory transparency on others is questionable. Nevertheless, regulatory measures that increase transparency, public knowledge, media scrutiny, and law enforcement oversight of the groups that communicate and advocate with government, clearly define how they do so, and and require some disclosure of what it is that they advocate, must on balance be viewed as in the public interest. That is provided such regulations do not unduly inhibit the ability of such groups to state their case. Nor should such regulations be deemed at odds with the corporate interest. A level playing field should be the end goal.

And this is where things become very odd indeed. The EU’s Green Paper for the European Transparency Initiative outlines some surprisingly sensible “essential components” that it says must be recognised in developing a regulatory framework for lobbying (p.5, Section II Transparency and Interest Representation):

1. Lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic system, regardless of whether it is carried out by individual citizens or companies, civil society organizations and other interest groups or firms working on behalf of third parties (public affairs professionals, think-tanks and lawyers).
2. Lobbyists can help bring important issues to the attention of the European institutions. In some cases, the Community offers financial support in order to ensure that the views of certain interest groups are effectively voiced at the European level (e.g. consumer interests, disabled citizens, environmental interests etc.).
3. At the same time, undue influence should not be exerted on the European institutions through improper lobbying.
4. 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.
5. Inherent in the European institutions’ obligation to identify and safeguard the “general interest of the Community” is their right to hold internal deliberations without interference from outside interests.
6. Measures in the field of transparency must be effective and proportionate.

The Bloated Plutocrat writes: "This is remarkably sensible thinking from the Commission, although one may well take issue with number 3. After all, if I’m paying for a lobbyist, I most certainly want him to 'exert undue influence on the European Institutions', albeit not in a particularly improper way. I wouldn't think very much to one who touted his services as exerting 'exactly the same influence as other lobbyists and not an iota more'! Nevertheless, for such a generally muddle-headed organisation as the Commission, the Green Paper shows a high degree of common sense, suggesting that they have indeed listened to those of us in the business community, for once."

The Bleeding Heart retorts: "Listened to the business community? It appears that the Commission is prostrate in supplication at the alter of special interest! From voluntary codes - and let's face it, regulating lobbyists through voluntary codes is like promoting the withdrawal method as a form of contraception for teenagers - to weak regulations that have absolutely no enforcement mechanism. Even the EU Parliament's unused threat of diminished access - "you boys and girls better be good little lobbyists or we'll take away your hall pass!" - is better than a simple register of interests. If the EU will not simply banish these corporate wolves, then the adoption of a much more detailed and strict regulatory framework is required."

In addressing the issue, Finnish MEP Alex Stubb further breaks with EU politico tradition in his blog by using plain speech and making sense:

“I believe that for most politicians, it is the strength of an argument that counts, not how much money is spent on promoting it. Certainly, European decision-makers need information about the sort of organisations that are backing different interest groups…However, debate over practical questions should not mask the underlying principle that whatever method of regulation we adopt, it must apply equally to all. It does not matter if someone comes from Greenpeace or McDonald’s, a trade union or employers’ federation, a think-tank or a firm of lawyers; when they are trying to influence an MEP’s position on a piece of legislation, they are all lobbyists. And if we don’t treat them as equals, we are on a slippery slope towards controlling free speech.”

Surprised by this uncommon sense, the Bloated Plutocrat asks, "What next? Minimum personal hygiene standards for French MEPs?"

In a representative democracy, policy is arrived at through the interaction and balancing of various interests. Representative government necessarily requires that knowledgeable, interested parties present their views and information on subjects under review by the legislature and executive. Is this not already the case in the judiciary? What is a trial but the representation of interests before judge and/or jury?

As a long time interlocutor with governments around the world, I find it simply impossible to adequately convey the shocking levels of ignorance - active and passive – about the issues evidenced by the vast majority of regulators, legislators, administrators, and bureaucrats that I have come across. It should come as no surprise that those elected by the people from the people are no more knowledgeable than the people on almost every subject other than campaign financing. This ignorance is the norm rather than the exception. Without the special interests providing their views and information on many issues, decisions would often be made on no more solid a basis than a coin toss. Good legislators, regulators, and other government decision makers are those willing and able to review input on a subject from the many interests involved and arrive at a sensible compromise.

Having said that, there is a need to regulate the ways in which lobbyists, interest representatives, etc., interact with government, and such regulation requires effective enforcement mechanisms. Your Genteel Moderator suggests that the EU Commission is right in seeking to regulate such activity and notes that its Green Paper shows some very good thinking on the subject. However, effective regulation requires not only that the law be clear and practical, but that it be applied evenly to all and that there be sufficient penalties for non-compliance so as to instill a healthy self-interest in compliance.

The Bleeding Heart remains outraged at the continued Commission stance in favour of regulated lobbying and strongly condemns the Bloated Plutocrat's last statement as an example of "ethnolfactorycentrism"...

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