Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Opinion

EU parliament boycotts transparency check

  • It took parliament President Martin Schultz's office seven months to address a request for transparency, and the answer was No (Photo: Parti Socialiste)

When the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs committee voted on changes to the EU lobby register (18 March), it explicitly noted its support for transparency NGOs.

"The European Parliament … welcomes and encourages the role played by non-institutional watchdogs in monitoring the transparency of the EU Institutions,” it said.

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Noble sentiments indeed and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the committee's members, or the hundreds of MEPs who will most likely endorse this report when the plenary vote takes place in Strasbourg on Tuesday (15 April).

Sadly, these sentiments are not universally shared within the parliament, or, at least, not by those MEPs who are responsible for organising its internal affairs.

Last summer, Transparency International (TI) EU started the research for its study of the EU integrity system, which assesses the transparency, accountability and integrity of 10 EU institutions.

The study looks at the rules in place, but also how those rules are observed in practice. To do it properly it meant interviewing those people responsible for enforcing these rules in each institution.

All the institutions responded positively, with one striking exception – the European Parliament.

Delays, prevarications, silences

The initial request for interviews was directed to the secretary general of the parliament, Klaus Welle, back in July 2013. It was met with a series of delays, prevarications and long silences.

Last December, with time running out, we took the step of writing directly to the parliament’s governing body, the Bureau, pleading with them to look again at our request.

The parliament was even offered the opportunity to review the research findings before publication, in view of the short amount of time left.

A response from the President’s office finally came in February. It was a resounding No. The reasoning behind that refusal is so curious that it is worth reprinting in its entirety here.

There are a number of points worth noting in this short letter.

Firstly, look at the delay between the first request (as acknowledged in the text) and the date marked on the letterhead – a full seven months. Not a great result for an institution that aspires to be responsive to EU citizens' concerns.

Secondly, and peculiarly, the word integrity is placed in scare quotes, as if the authors of the letter were unsure what this means.

Thirdly, the claim that “comprehensive information and documentation has been sent to you” is slightly misleading. Transparency International received the information following access to document requests made through formal channels.

Fourthly, it cites a long list of committees and institutions that monitor the parliament's affairs, but fails to acknowledge that the same is true of the other EU institutions that did acquiesce to interviews.

Finally, there is a rather baffling passage which appears to suggest that as the parliament's internal bureaucracy is purely at the service of the political arm, that is a good reason why it should not talk to an NGO concerned with transparency and accountability.

It is possible to accept that this is parliament’s final word on the matter.

What is not possible to accept is that this is a full account of the reasons why the parliament refused to cooperate.

This is not merely speculation. A preparatory note for the meeting where the Bureau made its decision is worth quoting in full:

Too ‘political’ and too close to EU elections

"The request for co-operation and holding of interviews goes beyond normal administrative proceedings of the secretariat-general and the study could be considered as an audit of parliament, comparing it to other institutions (instead of comparing the parliament with national parliaments).

"The main focus is on members and the institutions' approach to 'integrity'. The objective of the study is political in nature and is likely to have a political impact on the Institution, taking into account past studies by TI in relation to members states and the chosen date of publication just before the European elections.

"The institutions approached by TI have all reacted differently. Documentation sent by arliament to TI so far does not seem to satisfy TI's purposes. It should also be pointed out that co-operating with TI should not create a precedent which could be invoked by other NGOs in order to carry out similar exercises. The president has been informed of the matter in November and has decided to put the issue to the Bureau."

Translation: This is not in our job description. We disagree with the approach taken by the study. We are unsure what "integrity" means.

What can one say about this unfortunate state of affairs?

Fortunately, it is not representative of the vast majority of MEPs, assistant and officials we work with on a day-to-day basis.

And over the last five years the parliament has helped to push major anti-corruption and transparency reforms in the oil and gas sector and in anti-money laundering legislation.

As an anti-corruption organisation, we talk a lot about 'tone from the top' and how that impacts on the values and behaviour of an organisation, making it clear that the rules apply to everyone with no exceptions. In this case, the tone is decidedly off-key.

We can only hope that the next parliament changes its tune.

The writer is director of Transparency International's EU office. The EU integrity system will be published later this month. A version of this article was originally published on the TI website.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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