Across Brussels every year there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘stakeholder’ meetings hosted by the European Commission, writes Justin Stares.
Do-gooders such as non-governmental organisations are occasionally invited, though these meetings essentially serve as sounding boards for business when new legislation is in the pipeline. The Commission lays down its ideas and invites comment. Industry executives might fly in for the occasion; otherwise they are represented by their lobbyists, lawyers, or an industry association.
The arrangement serves both parties well, but journalists are seldom invited. In many cases Commission officials do not consider their presence to be in any way desirable, even if the event is branded a “public consultation”. Journalists – the few specialists that are interested – are not officially banned but are often fobbed off with a feeble excuse, including the pathetic: “there is not enough space in the room”.
This is not a universal rule. European Union presidencies differ greatly in their commitment to transparency, and a Nordic EU presidency, for example, is much more likely to welcome journalists than a press-phobic nation, such as the UK. This is also true of individual officials within the Commission. Some are happy to talk frankly, either on or off the record, and to open up events to web-streaming, while others prefer to refer to previous rules, abolished years ago, that required all press inquiries to be channelled through the official spokespersons’ service.
This is frustrating for journalists, who when banished from the room have to rely on secondhand sources which need cross-checking. Reporting errors can result, as two people rarely have the same impression of what occurred behind closed doors. Lobbyists, meanwhile, take copious notes and sell them – much as a journalist would – to their clients under the guise that they are a stakeholder and therefore have a right to be informed.
The Commission, which says it is looking to boost transparency and get closer to the people it seeks to serve, would be well advised to open up to the press. So-called EU myths of the bent banana variety breed in the fertile ground of ignorance caused by the huis-clos culture. The cloak-and-dagger mentality that pervades in some quarters is such that only a selected few know where and when certain meetings take place. Forget about asking for a copy of the minutes.
Would the presence of the press in the secretive, technical ‘comitology’ committees, or the even more secretive inter-institutional ‘trilogue’ discussions, enhance or detract from democracy? The answer is obvious. Diplomats counter that transparency would simply push the decision-making into the corridors outside the meeting room. I say that’s fine: the public will at least know what position its government has taken in Brussels. Today, we often don’t know that much.
Give it a try Brussels – open up the doors. When the public sees behind the curtain, it might blame its own government rather than lay all blame, as governments often desire, at the door of the European Commission.
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