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20th Apr 2019

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Revealed: 98% of EU 'expert groups' take place in private

  • Earlier this year, the European Commission set up an expert group on fake news. It is one of more than 700 expert groups. (Photo: European Commission)

Of the 775 groups set up by the European Commission to receive advice from outside experts, no more than 12 have decided to conduct their meetings in public.

However, the expert groups are slowly becoming more transparent in their conduct, according to a new study prepared for the European Parliament.

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  • Expert groups are nothing new. In 1979, the expert group on an energy-efficient society presented its report. (Photo: European Commission)

The final report is not yet out, but parliament provided EUobserver with the 'pre-release' version that has been shared with MEPs - with the caveat that several elements still needed to be verified.

"We are going in the right direction, let's continue this way," said far-left Dutch MEP Dennis de Jong on Monday evening (19 November), at a presentation of the findings.

Expert groups are set up by the commission to receive policy advice. They often consist of people who are experts in their field, but far removed from politics.

There are groups on topics like air transport statistics, coin-counterfeiting, air quality, and defence research - and hundreds of others.

At Monday's presentation, held in the parliament, commission senior civil servant Henning Klaus stressed that the expert groups' advice is non-binding.

"Those groups don't impose anything on the commission," he noted.

Nevertheless, the groups can lay the ground for policy-making and sometimes are able to frame the debate.

In the case of a group tasked with developing a new emissions test for cars, the high share of car industry members contributed to delays in concluding talks.

That is why the researchers - a Spain-based company called Blomeyer & Sanz - also looked at the composition of the groups.

Last year, MEPs asked the commission in a resolution to "make progress towards a more balanced composition" of expert groups.

The researchers found that 179 expert groups had members which had an economic interest. Of those, in 133 groups the members with an economic interest outnumbered those without.

The researchers identified 39 groups were all members had an economic interest.

But compared to their previous study in 2015, the situation has improved.

"I think the main point for us was the imbalance and we can certainly notice quite a bit of progress. I hope that the commission will continue in this vain," said MEP De Jonge.

The researchers also looked at gender imbalances, which the commission has sought to reduce via a target of at least 40 percent gender representation per expert group.

According to the study, there were 107 groups where less than 40 percent of members were female; only 22 groups had less than 40 percent male members.

The authors noted that the majority of groups had not disclosed their members' gender.

The EU commission's representative on Monday noted that the commission can only influence the gender balance for those experts appointed in their personal capacity.

"Amnesty International is a member. Who Amnesty International sends into a group, whether it's a man or a woman, the commission has absolutely no influence [over]," said Klaus.

The same goes for national governments and companies.

It is also up to the expert groups themselves to decide whether their meetings will be open to the public.

The authors of the study had identified only five expert groups that had opened up their meeting to the public, although the EU commission had told the authors that there were, in fact, 12 such public groups.

Roland Blomeyer, director of the company that carried out the study, told this website that the difference could be explained by inconsistent reporting in the database of expert groups, or that since the database was downloaded by the researchers in July, more group had opened to the public.

Regardless, commission civil servant Klaus agreed the number of public meetings was far too low.

"We are making constantly our colleagues aware that they are entitled to go public with their meeting," said Klaus.

"We would also very much favour ourselves - we in the secretariat-general of the commission - that more meetings are held in public," he added.

When presenting his study to MEPs, Blomeyer noted that the report was only scratching the surface. The company was not tasked - or paid - to do more in-depth research.

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