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Hacking Some Transparency into the Secretive Corridors of the EU Lobbying System

BY Jon Worth | Friday, December 7 2012

Lobbyists are part of the everyday political scene in Brussels, location of the main institutions of the European Union. While the debate continues about the exact definition of a lobbyist and hence how many of them ply their trade along the grey corridors of the European Commission and European Parliament, it is clearly in the interest of both corporations and not-for-profits to maintain good access to legislators with a remit covering a market of 500 million citizens.

For an ordinary citizen of one of the European Union's 27 Member States, the institution's corridors of power are complex and impenetrable from the outside — more complex than those of London or Berlin. Determining who wields what power and how is a daunting task. There is even a term to describe the Brussels insider mentality: Those in the know call it the Brussels Bubble, which is the equivalent of Washington, D.C.'s "inside the Beltway."

The bubble is periodically punctured by a scandal, revealing to the outside world the more questionable practices of some of the insiders — especially the relationship between the lobby industry and politicians. The Édith Cresson scandal remains the most major story, while the more recent Sunday Times sting and still ongoing fallout from Commissioner John Dalli's resignation leave a whiff of scandal in the Brussels air.

A doughty band of activists are determined to take the matter in hand. They want to clean up the corridors of Brussels, and open data is one of the tools they have at their disposal. Armed with the dataset from the European Commission's ownTransparency Register of lobbyists, Erik Wesselius from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) enlisted volunteers at the Open Knowledge Foundation's (OKFN) recent hackathon in London. The Open Interests Europe Hackathon took place over the weekend of November 24-25.

Corporate Europe Observatory and their allies campaigned long and hard to get the Register established in the first place. While it remains voluntary and incomplete, it is already possible to make use of the data in the Register, which was released by the European Commission. The first product of the OKFN event is this provisional map, which shows the locations of registered lobbyists' office premises. The mapping system will be one part of CEO's website, to be launched in January.

Also present at the OKFN event were two teams looking at aspects of the European Union's finances, an issue high up the political agenda at the moment as the bloc seeks to agree on its next seven year budget.

One team focused on fishing subsidy information, mapping the subsidy received per vessel with information obtained from freedom of information requests to highlight where subsidies are still being paid to ships accused of illegal fishing. Conclusions will contribute to the ongoing run by the indefatigable EU transparency advocate Jack Thurston. The main work was to identify new cases of subsidy of boats that had already been found guilty of illegal fishing in EU waters, adding to FishSubsidy's historic record.

The third team at the event aimed to bring EU tenders into focus by mapping recipients, using data scraped from Tenders Electronic Daily. The initial result of that project, by Benjamin Simatos and Martin Stabe, was a rough map of the data that can be found here.

Geocoding of tender data does not in itself tell any stories yet, but the work on the tenders data should be the first step at EU level to enable campaigners to discover the sorts of abuses clearly highlighted by Marko Rakar in Croatia.

While these efforts at increasing transparency are praiseworthy, they might not end up being very effective, and Jack was keen to highlight the challenges the online fishing reform campaigners face to get the issues they highlight taken up more widely, by either other campaigning NGOsor journalists. About journalists covering the EU in Brussels he was especially damning.

"I don't think there is a serious, inquiring press in Brussels," he told techPresident. "There are occasional forays into scandal uncovering […] but I don't think there is a particularly healthy Brussels based press corps, compared to what there might be at the national level, and I do no think that the EU institutions are subject to enough press scrutiny."

The difficult predicament of mainstream media journalists in Brussels is well known, with numbers of full time reporters assigned to the EU beat sharply decreasing due to budget cuts. This creates an ever smaller, ever closer circle of reporters who lack the capacity to look beyond the everyday press briefings at the Commission because they are too chummy with the people they are supposed to hold to account. Some briefings are even served up in the sauna.

This correlates with my own experience of watching the interaction between politicians and press at close quarters as a blogger on an EU press trip.

So while the efforts of OKFN, Erik Wesselius, Jack Thurston and all of the organizations and volunteers at the Hackathon are of course welcome, it is going to need a much deeper cultural change within the EU's corridors of power to reassure citizens that their representatives are behaving properly, and the budget is being spent wisely.

Jon Worth is a social media strategist and EU analyst.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.