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10th Apr 2021

EU transparency rules 'not truly effective'

A hearing at the European Parliament on Thursday (26 March) raised questions on conflicts of interest and lack of transparency in the EU institutions.

Four parliament committees had invited the head of the Brussels’ office at Transparency International (TI) to discuss a report on the integrity of the EU institutions.

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“It’s a bit like buses this hearing, you wait one year for a committee hearing on your report and the four come along all at once,” TI director Carl Dolan told a handful of MEPs.

TI’s 250-page report on the EU institutions and agencies was published last April.

It examined issues such as the transparency of the legislative process, conflicts of interest procedures, and whistle-blowing procedures.

The European Parliament at the time was the only EU institution to turn away TI researchers who wanted to assess its integrity.

Dolan pointed out that the parliament has also yet to sanction any MEP despite clear breaches of the assembly’s own rules of conduct.

Those rules are overseen by the parliament’s so-called Advisory Committee on the Code of Conduct, which has in the past issued recommendations for sanctions but which were never acted on.

The parliament put in place a code of conduct after MEPs in 2011 were caught accepting cash in exchange for amendments by reporters posing as corporate lobbyists.

Two MEPs ended up facing criminal charges and were sentenced to jail in their home countries.

German centre-right Ingeborg Graessle, who chaired the joint-committee hearing, indicated that cash-for-amendments is a futile path, and something that could have "only come from journalists".

“Anyone who knows the legislative process would know that just tabling an amendment is not going to change anything and you wouldn’t be able to buy up enough people in the legislative process to have an overall impact,” she added.

Brussels is second only to Washington DC in terms of paid professionals attempting to either influence public policy or political decisions. The EU capital has an estimated 30,000 lobbyists.

Both the European Commission and the European Parliament have pieced together codes of conduct and a joint voluntary transparency register to make the institutions more transparent.

Commissioners, members of their cabinet, and directorate general heads, are now required to publish all their meetings with lobbyists.

The moves have been welcomed but transparency watchdogs point to a lack of sanctions, unclear rules, and an increasing trend towards closed-door decision.

“As you might expect there are many rules, bodies and processes in place, but there has been a puzzling reluctance to make them truly effective,” said Dolan.

Two years ago the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that the council, representing member states, is required to disclose the positions of individual national governments in legislative negotiations.

Since then the council has since classified more and more documents as secret, locking out the wider public and reporters who have to rely on leaks.

Decisions on important legislative proposals are also being made behind closed doors among representatives of the three in EU institutions in so-called triologue meetings.

The European commission, for its part, had recently stated it wanted a more effective joint-transparency register but then stopped short of making it mandatory.

The register lists several thousand organisations but critics point out it remains riddled with misleading information, has no sanctions for abuse, and does little to appease public perception of corruption at the EU institutions.

Daniel Gueguen, a veteran lobbyist, said the registry should be compulsory and be applied to all categories of lobbyists, lawyers included.

“When a lawyer is working on an anti-dumping dossier, he has to disclose nothing. If me, I am involved in an anti-dumping dossier, I have to disclose. This is unfair and this is in my opinion unacceptable,” he said.

The council, for its part, has shown little interest in joining the transparency register.

Polls cited by Dolan suggest 70 percent of the EU public believes corruption is present in EU institutions mainly because of the perceived cozy relations between lobbyists and policy makers.

Those perceptions may be reinforced when MEPs take on second jobs or former European commissioners end up working for big companies.

Neelie Kroes, who was European commissioner for the digital agenda, now works as a special advisor for the Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Former justice commissioner Viviane Reding sits on the boards of Nyrstar, Bertelsmann Foundation, and Agfa-Gevaert. The Luxembourg national is also a centre-right MEP.

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