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27th Sep 2020

MEPs divided on whether to punish EU agencies

  • EU officials should not be allowed to immediately work for the industries they were regulating (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

MEPs on Thursday (10 May) are to vote whether to punish three EU agencies for having used public money for questionable purposes and for tolerating conflicts of interest in top management. Political considerations and intense lobbying may change the outcome of the vote, however.

"There is a lot of lobbying around these agencies. People from the industries and agencies are very powerful and they talk to some of my colleagues," Romanian centre-right MEP Monica Macovei told journalists on Tuesday.

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In charge of looking at how 24 independent EU agencies are spending their budget, Macovei, a long-standing anti-corruption campaigner, has recommended for three of the agencies not to be given a green light on their 2010 accounts until autumn, putting more pressure on them to improve ethical standards.

The responsible parliamentary committee in March backed her proposal and recommended for the whole parliament to do the same on Thursday.

But the Social Democrats on Wednesday said they would vote against it, while Macovei's own group, the European People's Party, has agreed to flunk only two out of the three agencies - the European Environment Agency and the European Medicines Agency. The Liberals agree with Macovei on the third one, the European Food Safety Agency, but not on the other two. Greens, leftists, conservatives and independents support her on all three.

"This is not directed against the agencies, as they claim, it is meant to help them improve the way they work and to eliminate conflicts of interests, particularly when it's about agencies related to industries," she said.

Jutta Haug, a German Social-Democrat who came to the same briefing on Tuesday, vocally opposed Macovei, saying "I am one of the lobbyists you are talking about" in an ironic reference to her support for the EU bodies. She said the parliament should not punish the directors of the agencies for things they have no control of - such as the appointment of experts by the EU commission or member states.

German Liberal MEP Michael Theurer, who chairs the responsible budgetary control committee, said "conflicts of interests are an important issue" but noted that MEPs are not "prosecutors" and have to take account of all sides of the argument.

Meanwhile, Macovei noted that most of her findings came out of confronting the agencies after they gave conflicting replies to her queries.

On the case of the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, she said the director herself is to blame. She explained that the director, Jacqueline McGlade, had been "economical with the truth" when confronted on her board membership of an NGO, Earthwatch, to which she paid over €30,000 from the agency's budget in 2010 for research trips to the Caribbean and Mediterranean. McGlade also paid almost €300,000 for covering the facade of the agency's headquarters with plants - an installation that lasted five months - and some €250,000 for media monitoring.

"This is excessive and contrary to the principle of efficient use of public money," said Macovei.

The European Medicines Agency in London is also under scrutiny after its former director Thomas Lonngren left the agency to work for a pharmaceutical consultancy firm after having allgegedly done consultancy work while still in office. The chair of the agency's expert panel, Eric Abadie, resigned in April amid controversy in France, where he served as special advisor to the national regulator, which allowed the sale of a weight loss drug, Mediator, that killed 1,300 people.

In Italy, the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) is well known for hiring industry lobbyists and for allowing its staff to switch back to industry without a so-called cooling-off period.

On Wednesday, just one day ahead of the vote, Efsa announced the resignation of its management board chief Diana Banati, who was exposed by an MEP for having also been on the board of a biotech-sponsored outfit, the International Life Sciences Institute. That same day, the institute announced Banati's appointment as its new director.

Corporate Europe, an NGO that has documented over 30 cases of "revolving doors" at Efsa, said it was "totally unacceptable that Banati should be able to move from such an important position within the regulatory authority straight to a lobbying job."

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