Monday

1st Mar 2021

Opinion

Cheques, no balances: side-jobs in the European Parliament

  • In total MEPs have declared more than 1200 outside activities that earn them between €6 and €18m per year (Photo: European Parliament)

For the last few weeks, Brussels has been absorbed by the spectacle of the European Parliament grilling the nominees for the new European Commission. On the whole, MEPs have done a pretty good job in asking the right questions of those in line for the Commission’s top jobs.

In particular, they have been at pains to point out the private interests of Commissioners-designate that could conflict with their official portfolios, for example the UK’s Jonathan Hill and Spain’s Arias Canete.

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In the case of Slovenia’s Alenka Bratusek, MEPs highlighted the actual conflict of interest present in her ‘self nomination’ that ultimately contributed to her downfall - a breach of national ethics laws that was confirmed by the Slovenian Anti-Corruption Agency last week.

It is heartening to see the Parliament scrutinizing potential conflicts of interest at the Commission so forcefully, but it does beg the question: how good is the Parliament at ensuring the private interests of its own members do not have a bearing EU on legislation?

The short answer is: not very good at all.

No follow up

This week, Transparency International EU launched the Integrity Watch website, which for the first time gathers into one place the financial declarations of all 751 MEPs. With one click, the scope of member’s private interests is plain for all to see. 398 MEPs have side jobs, board memberships or other positions that generate an income.

In total they have declared more than 1200 outside activities that earn them between €6 and €18m per year.

Many of the declared activities pay less than 500€ per month, but 15 MEPs receive more income from outside activities than their basic salary as an MEP of 8020 €.

It is nearly three years since the Parliament introduced a code of conduct on the back of a cash-for-amendments scandal, a code that obliges MEPs to make a written declaration of their outside interests and income. It should get a lot of credit for taking this important step toward managing its members’ conflicts of interest, but unfortunately that appears to be as far as it is willing to go.

Once the information is put on individual webpages on the Parliament’s website, that is an end to the matter. There is little monitoring, no follow-up.

We highlighted this problem when we published our study of the transparency and accountability of EU institutions last April, having found no evidence that the information MEPs put in their declarations is systematically verified.

Even worse, where undeclared conflicts of interest have been identified – by NGOs normally, not the Parliament’s own services - no sanctions have been imposed. This is despite clear recommendations to the President of the Parliament from the advisory committee dealing with the implementation of the Code of Conduct.

It should be clear to everyone that the system is not working. Right now, we have the worst of both worlds – a formal ethics bureaucracy that consumes Members’ valuable time, but that is both ineffective and lacks teeth.

The worst of both worlds

The blame for this state of affairs rests mainly with the Parliament’s administration and leadership. They are responsible for the half-hearted implementation of a Code of Conduct that once promised to be an exemplar for parliaments around Europe.

Most MEPs are filling in these forms in good faith, but with little or no guidance. Mistakes are inevitable and the resulting declarations that contain activity descriptions such as “consultant”, “freelancer” or abbreviations such as “RvC FMO” or “ASDCAM”, do not allow for meaningful monitoring of potential conflicts of interest.

Whether or not you think it should be permissible for an MEP to have a side-job in addition to his or her role as a legislator, it should at least be clear that conflicts between private and public interest will almost certainly arise in the line of their work.

In that case, the Parliament’s leadership has a duty to its own members and to the public at large to put in place a robust system ensuring that those conflicts do not distort public policy and legislation. The Parliament’s current system falls well short of this standard - a standard to which it rightly holds the Commission.

The writer is Director of Transparency International EU

Disclaimer

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

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Over half of the MEPs have activities outside the European Parliament, earning between €5.8 and €18.3 million on top of their regular salaries, according to a database pooling their declarations of financial interests.

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