17th Oct 2021

Negotiations set for new, tougher, EU ethics body

  • The new EU ethics body aims to weed out conflicts-of-interest - but will not have its own powers of sanction (Photo: Arek Dreyer)
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Despite resistance from mostly far-right plus centre-right MEPs, the European Parliament is pressing ahead with the creation of a new EU independent ethics body.

The plan is to create an ethics body to oversee MEPs and staff at the European Parliament, as well as the European Commission.

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German Green MEP Daniel Freund, who spearheaded the report into the issue, told reporters on Wednesday (22 September) talks will soon start with the European Commission.

"There is an openness to start the dialogue, reasonably soon, given that it's an inter-institutional agreement and not legislation," he said - noting that the upcoming French EU presidency is also keen.

The commission may amend or come up with a new proposal before the end of the year, based on Freund's own initiative report, which received majority European Parliament support in a plenary vote last week.

The parliament's vision is to create a body staffed by nine outside experts, such as former European Court of Justice judges, who would then issue public recommendations on possible sanctions against offenders.

That is a departure from the current setup, a secretive oversight body composed entirely of MEPs themselves.

"There have been at least 25 cases of rule breaches in the European Parliament in the last few years. Not a single one has led to the sanctions," noted Freund.

He also pointed out revolving door cases among former European commissioners, including Jose Manuel Barroso who landed a job at Goldman Sachs shortly after ending his term as commission president.

Other notable cases include German former commissioner Guenther Oettinger who took on 17 jobs during his two-year cooling off period.

Meanwhile, this week the European Commission was unable to clarify if Irish former commissioner Phil Hogan breached code-of-conduct rules after landing a job at a Brussels-based lobbying law firm.

The new ethics committee would also seek to prevent lower-level functionaries from similar actions.

But it will not be able to enforce sanctions, a political compromise likely needed to help obtain majority support.

At the European Parliament, it means enforcement remains with the president and among the commissioners in the European Commission.

Transparency International EU, a Brussel-based NGO, in a statement described that as as a major weakness.

"Decisions on sanctions against MEPs who have broken the rules will still be taken by one person; the president of the parliament," said Vitor Teixeira from the NGO.

"This leaves the outcome open to political influence and bias," he said.

The NGO says a better solution would have the parliament vote on the sanctions, on the basis of the ethic's committee recommendation.

Resistance to such an idea is likely to come from the far-right and the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

The EPP last week abstained from the vote, led by its German leadership under Manfred Weber and Rainer Wieland.

Wieland said they abstained in recognition that some improvements had been made during the course of the negotiations.

"The ethics body, as proposed in the parliamentary report by a Green MEP, is a direct attack against the separation of powers," he said, in a statement.

But the EPP abstention may also be tied to the German federal election taking place this weekend, where the centre-right alliance is trailing in the polls.

Current sanctions against offending MEPs includes docking their daily allowances and removing them from key European parliament positions.

At the European commission, possible sanctions include forced retirement or pension and other benefits loss if deemed necessary by the European Court of Justice.

New EU ethics body takes shape

German Green MEP Daniel Freund is spearheading efforts at the European Parliament to create a new independent ethics body, common to all the EU institutions. The body is slowly taking shape - but still has to go to a vote.

EU kept in dark on ex-commissioner's new lobby job

Phil Hogan, the former European commissioner for trade, was this month hired by US-law firm DLA Piper, where he will work out of the Brussels office. Critics say the hire poses questions on weak EU ethics oversight rules on lobbying.

German ex-commissioner Oettinger lands Orban job

Hungary's PM Viktor Orban appointed controversial former commissioner Guenther Oettinger to a government council in a way that might break EU rules. Oettinger claims he did not know about the appointment.

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