19th Sep 2020

New oversight rules fail to catch MEP 'friendship groups'

  • MEP 'Friendship groups' in the European Parliament are unregulated bodies subject to little to no oversight (Photo: European Union 2014)

Efforts by the European Parliament to impose some form of accountability on so-called 'friendship groups' appear to have been ignored.

These unregulated bodies are sometimes used by MEPs to grant foreign governments closed-door access to the EU institution.

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They also circumvent public scrutiny in Brussels, yet can often be found quoted in overseas media outlets as if citing the official position of the European Parliament.

Such groups have caused headaches for official European Parliament delegations, who say friendship groups risk conflicts of interest, plus wider reputational damage to the European Union.

The Judea and Samaria group ranks as among the more bizarre outfits. Far-right MEPs, who compose the group, once attempted to get Jerusalem recognised as the capital of Israel.

New internal rules of procedure at the European parliament were introduced last December to curtail abuse by the friendship groups.

These rules state friendship groups are required to make declarations of any support, cash or in kind, which members did not declare individually.

Those declarations must be made to the European Parliament Quaestors, a small group of MEPs tasked to oversee the administrative conduct of their colleagues.

EUobserver filed a freedom of request to gain access to the register of declarations held by the Quaestors.

But the European Parliament on Tuesday (1 September) said they found none.

"The institution assessed the documents it holds and found that so far no declarations were submitted with reference to the Quaestor's notice," it said.

The parliament did note that the MEPs may have made the declarations individually.

Weak oversight

But it is unclear which MEPs sit on which friendship groups since they are not official EU bodies - making accountability and scrutiny near impossible.

The European Parliament attempted in 2018 to create an overview of the groups, but was only able to come up with an incomplete list.

It is possible that the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns that started in late March have also been a factor into the lack of declarations.

However, the EU parliament's own oversight tool on issues such as conflicts of interest is weak.

Vietnam case

When this website uncovered a conflict of interest, which led to the resignation of an MEP as a rapporteur, a member of an internal oversight body dealing with the code of conduct of MEPs came to his immediate defence.

Rapporteurs spearhead policy talks on behalf the European Parliament.

At the time, Jan Zahradil, a Czech MEP and one-time Spitzenkandidat for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), was rapporteur on EU trade talks with Vietnam.

He was also the chair of the friendship to Vietnam group - which had held its launch party inside Vietnam's embassy in Brussels.

Zahradil had failed to declare his role in a group with ties to the ruling repressive communist state regime in Hanoi - despite European Parliament rules.

He then stepped down as rapporteur, a position that was given to Geert Bourgeois, a Belgian MEP from the same conservative group.

Bourgeois was also on the European Parliament's code of conduct advisory committee, which specifically deals with conflicts of interest of MEPs.

Bourgeois posed no questions over Zahradil's conflicts. Instead, he praised his work amid promises to honour it. on the day of resignation.


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