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24th Jan 2021

Top official demands transparency on EU expert groups

  • O'Reilly wrote a letter to Juncker asking him to make expert groups more transparent and better balanced (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

A top EU official is pushing for greater transparency on policy decision-making process at the European Commission.

European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, on Friday (30 January) said the commission, despite some progress, is still not doing enough to open up expert groups to public scrutiny.

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“There is room for improvement if we want to be sure that the public can trust and scrutinise the work of these important groups,” said O’Reilly in a statement.

Expert groups provide advice on policy areas where the commission lacks specific know-how. Their views can influence policy ideas that may lead to legislative proposals later on.

But critics say the groups are too often composed of corporate lobbyists and that the voice of civil society is not sufficiently represented.

Pro-transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory in a report last year revealed big companies had scientists issuing opinions in expert groups on toxic chemicals they manufacture.

O’Reilly has received dozens of complaints after launching her own inquiry into the matter last May. The complaints highlighted five broad issues, which she now wants the European Commission to address by the end of April.

Those complaints include conflicts of interest where some experts, who are invited in “their personal capacity”, actually work for a company specialising in the issue being discussed.

The problem was highlighted in an expert group on tax where some of the independent panelists were working for accountancy firms Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PwC.

The commission says it tries to make the groups as balanced "as far as possible", but O’Reilly say that isn’t good enough. She wants the balance to be mandatory and legally binding.

She also wants the commission to make it easier for people to apply and develop a labeling process that links back to the EU’s joint transparency register.

“The fact that the same organisation may be labelled differently in different expert groups is difficult to comprehend,” she wrote in a letter sent earlier this week to EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Under her proposal, anyone who wants to join a group must also be signed up to the transparency register.

The ‘forgotten’ budget freeze

Pressure to get the commission to act hit a snag last year when law makers forgot to insert a European parliament amendment into a revised EU 2015 budget.

The plenary had adopted an amendment late last year to withhold €3.8 million from the budget line that finance the groups.

The money would be released on the condition the commission meets a number of transparency demands. This included a ban on lobbyists and corporate executives from joining the groups in a “personal capacity”.

But the plan backfired when the European Parliament and member states could not agree on the 2015 budget within a set deadline, forcing the commission to come up with a new budget proposal.

The new draft was then rushed through in an informal "trialogue", where the small delegation of parliament negotiators forgot to insert the amendment.

“It was simply the fact that given all the big questions and all these big difficulties in coming to an agreement, they forgot this very important but minor issue,” a parliament contact told this website.

The contact said it is likely the parliament will re-insert the amendment again but for the 2016 EU budget cycle.

“This is quite a shame because we know that the Council [representing member states] is not interested in such matters, they would not have rejected this,” added the source.

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