Thursday

12th Dec 2019

EUobserved

MEPs stake claim to be EU investigators

  • The 751 seat European Parliament is gearing up on investigative committee work and well-executed ping-pong questioning of witnesses. (Photo: European Parliament)

The methods employed by the European Parliament's inquiry committee into the role of Europe's governments in the Dieselgate scandal will not be seen as revolutionary outside Brussels.

But the way witnesses are questioned in the EMIS inquiry committee (Emissions Measurements in the Automotive Sector) was apparently so novel that it deserved its own name.

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  • Centre-right MEP Pablo Zalba Bidgain is a member of both the second LuxLeaks committee, and the Dieselgate inquiry committee. If he secures a seat on the Panama Papers committee, he would break a record (Photo: European Parliament)

“As a general rule, upon introduction by the Chair, the witnesses or experts open their hearing with a brief oral statement, which is followed by questions from EMIS Members in accordance with the ‘ping-pong’ principle (answer immediately following each question),” MEPs Pablo Zalba Bidegain and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy wrote last week in the draft interim report.

In many parliaments, the ping-pong principle is nothing new. But in the EP, it is a refreshing change of procedure.

Questioning in the EP is known informally as an exchange of views, and usually takes the following format: one member of each of the eight political groups takes the floor and crams as many questions and comments into a strictly allotted time slot. Sometimes one of the non-affiliated members also gets a turn.

After so many interventions, as spoken contributions are often called, the questioned guest usually has only three minutes or so to try and answer them. Alternatively, if the guest is politically savvy, they will pick the answers that are easiest to address.

Not so in the EMIS committee, where the ping-pong principle has actually resulted in the hearings being interesting to watch, at least to those who have taken some time to catch up on technical terms like “exhaust gas recirculation of nitrogen oxide”.

The hearings have so far involved mostly technical witnesses. But when former commissioners and national authorities in charge of checking if car companies are cheating take the stand later this year, a well-executed ping-pong principle works much better than the marathon of questions.

Panama Papers

It is to be hoped that the new inquiry committee into the Panama Papers, which the plenary of the parliament formally requested on Wednesday (8 June), will take a similar work method.

The Panama Papers were a trove of documents, leaked last April, that showed how the rich and powerful use offshore firms to avoid paying taxes.

MEPs voted to set up a committee to “investigate alleged contraventions and maladministration in the application of Union law in relation to money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion, its powers, numerical strength and term of office”.

The outcome of the vote in Strasbourg was no surprise. At last Friday's pre-plenary press conference this website asked all political groups if any of them would vote against.

None spoke up, although it should be noted there was no representative present of the seventh-largest group, the eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).

The constitutive vote for the Panama Papers inquiry was therefore somewhat less exciting than the one for the Dieselgate inquiry, which was supported by 354 MEPs and opposed by 229.

Centre-right are game, this time

The big difference this time around is that centre-right MEPs back the plan this time.

“Our preference usually is to deal with these issues in the committees that exist in the parliament, within their mandate,” said Antti Timonen, spokesman for the largest group, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Most of the EPP members voted against setting up the Dieselgate committee.

“We felt it would be better to see [diesel-related] proposals for the future, to see what can be done. For us it was very important not to harm the European car industry, which is a big employer,” said Timonen.

“However, for the Panama Papers, we have seen that they have created a lot of interest but also exposed many problems, so perhaps this inquiry committee gives a better opportunities for us to see what we could have done differently.”

His colleague from the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), also centre-right but much less federalist group, had similar reasoning.

The Panama Papers constitute a “slightly more cross-cutting issue”, said ECR spokesman James Holtum, noting that the group felt the normal environment committee could have dealt with Dieselgate.

Closing the trilogy

The inquiry committee on the Panama Papers will be an informal successor to two so-called special committees, which were set up after the 2014 Luxleaks scandal that revealed how companies were getting sweetheart tax deals in Luxembourg.

After the mandate of the first Tax Rulings and Other Measures Similar in Nature or Effect committee ended on 30 November 2015, the parliament decided to install a sequel, known by its acronym TAXE 2, which will run until 2 August 2016.

Although they were called special committees, the Luxleaks committees were much less powerful than an inquiry committee and they had trouble getting access to documents and persuading witnesses to appear.

The Panama Papers will therefore be a platform to take care of “some of the unfinished business” of TAXE 2, said Richard More O'Ferrall of the Greens, the sixth-largest group, traditionally a pro-inquiry group.

“We are certainly happy that there was a lot less resistance this time,” he said about setting up the Panama Papers inquiry.

After Wednesday's vote, there will be two active inquiry committees (Dieselgate and Panama Papers) and one special committee (LuxLeaks II). The Panama Papers committee will have 65 members, the other two committees have 45 members each.

MEPs as investigators

There are only two MEPs serving on both the Dieselgate and Luxleaks committees, so for a number of months this year 153 MEPs could be taking part in investigative committees. That's not counting the substitute members. If those are counted, and the Panama Papers committee acquires only members not currently in the two other committees, 40 percent of MEPs would be a (substitute) member of an investigative group.

(Photo: EUobserver)

Could it be that the parliament is pushing for a more investigative role?

If it is, the conditions are there, partly because the legislative workload has decreased under the European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker. Most new legislation needs approval by the European Parliament, but only the Commission can propose new rules.

“There is less legislation so it is good that we can all work together to ensure that the parliament can deliver some added value,” said More O'Ferrall.

Holtum of the mildly eurosceptic ECR said: “This parliament often sees its role as working in concert with the commission.

“Our general perception of a parliament would be that it is to hold the executive to account. Perhaps this parliament could look more at turning over some stones, seeing what's under them in terms of implementation of legislation.”

But Utta Tuttlies, spokeswoman for the centre-left socialist group, noted that an inquiry committee “needs to have a reason”.

“That reason must be that something is going wrong. Just because there is possibly less legislation, I think the conclusion that there will be many more inquiry committees, at least in my view, that is not the direct logic,” said Tuttlies.

Investigation

Ex-commissioner refuses to testify at dieselgate probe

Guenther Verheugen, who was in charge of industry affairs between 2004 and 2010, says it is the job of current commissioners to appear before an EP inquiry into the dieselgate scandal.

Member states stonewall EP tax probe

EU member states are refusing to hand over documents to help the European Parliament's probe into tax abuse by multi-national corporations.

EP Dieselgate committee packed with opponents

The European Parliament has backed the composition of the committee to shed light on the diesel emissions scandal. But a third of its members are unconvinced of its utility.

MEPs to probe what EU knew on Dieselgate

MEPs to investigate if commission and national governments did enough to stop use of cheat software on emissions tests, Inquiry committee to have access to sensitive documents.

Investigation

German MPs to also probe Dieselgate

Bundestag inquiry committee has more enforcement tools than its EU counterpart to ensure witnesses like former commissioner Guenther Verheugen will appear.

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