Tuesday

17th Sep 2019

MEPs withhold millions from EU commission over transparency

The European Parliament on Wednesday (22 October) punched a €3.8 million hole in the EU commission 2015 budget as leverage until the Brussels-executive improves its transparency record.

The money will be released once MEPs in the budget committee are satisfied the commission has stepped up efforts to increase transparency on so-called expert groups, which offer commission officials advice on drafting new policies.

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  • MEPs want more balanced expert groups (Photo: h.koppdelaney)

Critics say the groups are imbalanced because they sway too heavily towards industry-types without adequate input from others like civil society.

“Suspending these funds sends a strong signal to the commission that this cannot continue,” said German Green MEP Helga Trupel, who tabled the budget amendment.

The freeze reduces available funds to reimburse travel and expenses like food bills.

The commission, for its part, says the imbalance often occurs because not enough people from civil society with the required expertise apply to sit on the groups in the first place.

“It is not correct to say that the commission is not serious about making its expert groups more transparent and balanced,” said EU commission spokesperson Anthony Gravilli.

He pointed out that the membership of many groups has been reviewed and noted “transparency has been significantly enhanced” over the years via a special register for expert groups.

But while the overall lack of applications from civil society is a recognised problem, pro-transparency groups warn that some of those sitting in the groups are really corporate lobbyists cloaked in a "personal capacity" label.

A "personal capacity" label means the representative is supposed to be acting in the public interest and be independent.

The label - if incorrectly applied - could give the impression that a group is balanced when in fact it is not.

In a letter addressed to the EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly in late August, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an NGO monitoring transparency and ethics, highlighted several such examples.

It is a loophole and a demand the European Parliament on Wednesday wants closed.

Trupel’s amendment, which was widely endorsed by the political groups, requires the commission to ban lobbyists and corporate executives sitting in expert groups in a "personal capacity."

Other demands require the groups to be more balanced and ensure the selection process is open to public scrutiny.

Membership information, agendas, minutes, and participants’ submissions also need to be published online “unless if there is a clear and published reason for not providing this information.”

The EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly over the summer launched her own inquiry into the matter with recommendations expected sometime next year. Euro-deputies want her findings to be integrated into the commission’s rulebook on the groups.

It is not the first time the parliament has used its budget powers to force the commission’s hand.

A similar effort by the MEPs was made in 2011 for the 2012 budget.

MEPs at the time had put €2 million into reserve, which they then lifted a few months later.

The commission said the reserve was lifted because it had fulfilled the conditions imposed by the parliament.

Not everyone agrees, with a new study out this month that says corporate interest continues to dominate the groups.

“Two years on and we're back in the same position because all other routes of reform have led to a dead end,” said Max Bank from pro-transparency group, LobbyControl.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s vote on the 2015 budget has put the European Parliament in direct opposition to the Council – representing member states.

The assembly voted to increase the budget and reversed the cuts made by the Council.

The two sides are now set to discuss details in the hopes of getting the budget approved by the end of November.

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