Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

Transparency and the EP: Talk but little action?

  • "The European Parliament refused any formal cooperation with last year's integrity study - the only EU institution to do so" (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

We’ve had our ups and downs with the European Parliament over the years. Although I’m sure many organisations in Brussels could say the same, this has always seemed a little puzzling to us.

After all, Transparency International is an NGO dedicated to good governance, accountability, transparency, and integrity in public life, and the European Parliament is committed to exactly the same values in countless statements, legislative preambles, and resolutions.

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  • "The European Parliament has 'a light-touch approach to self-regulation'" (Photo: European Parliament)

On the face of it, therefore, we should be natural allies in our shared aim of making EU decision-making more responsive to its citizens.

And in many cases we have been. For example, four parliamentary committees organised a hearing this week (26 March) on our report on corruption risks in EU institutions.

Much more importantly, we have had the pleasure of working with some dedicated and selfless MEPs to help pass important transparency and anti-corruption legislation.

Industries

Three years ago, in the teeth of fierce opposition from the oil and gas lobby, MEPs working with civil society groups managed to get stringent transparency rules for extractive industries on the EU statute books.

While equivalent legislation in the US is held up through a combination of industry lawsuits and bureaucratic inertia, EU companies will soon be publishing reports that will show exactly how much they pay to governments around the world to exploit their mineral wealth. These reports will shed some much needed light on the public finances of countries such as Angola and Azerbaijan.

That result was possible thanks to experienced MEPs confidently wielding new powers granted to them under the Lisbon treaty.

I’m happy to report similar outcomes for EU anti-money laundering legislation and banking transparency.

It’s when the parliament is asked to look at the behaviour of its members, however, that things get a little turbulent.

MEPs' business

It all started in 2011 when a clutch of MEPs fell for one of the oldest media tricks in the book - a sting organised by the UK’s Sunday Times which filmed them agreeing to table legislative amendments, among other services, in return for payments by journalists posing as a fake lobbying consultancy.

We, like most of the people we know, were shocked by the brazen behaviour on display.

One MEP even submitted an invoice for his services. We were even more shocked to discover that the Parliament had no Code of Conduct or similar document where this kind of behaviour was explicitly prohibited.

Jerzy Buzek, the then-President of the Parliament, made it his personal mission to rectify this state of affairs, putting in motion the initiatives that led to the current MEP Code of Conduct and system for financial declarations.

To us this seemed a no-brainer, but we were surprised to hear the rumblings of discontent from Place Luxembourg. Many of the MEPs we met at the time were decidedly ambivalent about the whole process.

Martin Schulz told us that he preferred an approach based on trust, without the kind of monitoring and controls that the new Code envisaged. Others turned their ire on the journalists involved in the sting, calling for their prosecution for entrapment and registering under a false identity (ironically at the same time that the parliament was calling for more support for investigative journalists).

Sharon Bowles, former chair of the economic and monetary affairs committee, claimed that her colleagues had been "stitched up like a kipper" and protested their innocence.

The courts disagreed. Two of the MEPs implicated, Ernst Strasser and Zoran Thaler, received jail sentences in Austria and Slovenia, respectively.

For many MEPs, this is still a sore point. They, along with Bowles, feel they were "stitched up" by a eurosceptic Murdoch press.

The Code of Conduct was watered down, and its implementation and enforcement undermined. Schulz, now president, has felt it unnecessary to impose any sanctions on his fellow members, even when these have been recommended by the parliament’s own advisory committee and the code’s provisions have been clearly violated.

Parliament's least endearing traits

The episode illustrates two of the parliament’s least endearing traits: a light-touch approach to self-regulation and an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

The two are often run together - any proposal that behaviour should be governed by stricter rules, or standards of integrity and transparency in the house be improved, is seen as an attempt to 'do down’ the parliament.

This mentality reached its apogee last year, when the secretariat-general refused any formal cooperation with us as part of our integrity study, the only EU institution to do so.

It may also explain why the Parliament has still not complied with its regulatory obligations to provide clear guidelines and channels for would-be whistleblowers, despite the particularly difficult statutory situation this creates for MEPs‘ assistants, and despite the prompting of the EU Ombudsman.

All of this is unbecoming of an institution that has proven itself an effective and responsible legislator in so many areas, and indeed been a strong anti-corruption champion from time to time.

The key issue now is to show to the European public how it fulfils that role with as much integrity and transparency as possible, and not seek to exempt itself from standards it is quick to apply to others.

This would be the hallmark of a mature and confident parliament.

Carl Dolan is director of the Transparency International Liaison Office to the European Union (TI EU)

Disclaimer

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

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