21st Sep 2023

EU's proposed ethics body 'toothless', say campaigners

  • A separate 14-point plan already proposed by EU Parliament president Roberta Metsola to increase transparency and integrity is struggling to see the light of day (Photo: European Parliament)
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Transparency campaigners say a new ethics body proposed by the European Commission will do little to prevent corruption at the EU institutions.

The body's architecture, outlined on Thursday (8 June) by the commission, comes six months after allegations of a €1.5m Qatari-linked corruption affair involving former European Parliament vice-president Eva Kaili.

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Věra Jourová, the EU commissioner in charge of transparency, told reporters in Brussels that the new body will raise the standards of ethical conduct of European politicians.

"It reduces the possibility of ill-intentioned actors to abuse the system," she said.

Under the commission's proposal, the body will set standards on declaring side interests and assets, transparency on meetings and gifts, among other criteria.

"These standards will have to be transposed into the internal rules of each institution," she said.

Jourova was mandated in late 2019 to create the body — posing questions on why it has taken so long to come up with a plan.

Pressed, Jourova said almost every EU institution had refused to sign onto the idea when first approached in 2020.

"Only two institutions said yes, all the others said no. And those two were the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions," she said.

The proposal will be discussed among the various EU institutions in early July and is likely to be amended before adopted, if it all.


Critics point out that the ethics body, set to span nine EU institutions, will not be able conduct any investigations and impose sanctions.

"This proposed ethics body reinforces the EU's business-as-usual, self-policing approach to misconduct," said Nicholas Aiossa of Transparency International EU, an NGO based in Brussels.

Resistance at the European Parliament is partly due to a jealous defence of the so-called freedom of the mandate, a concept coupled with immunity that largely protects MEPs from outside scrutiny.

Although the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, is allowed to carry out investigations at the European Parliament, it is not allowed to enter an MEP's office or rummage through their documents.

Such limitations have given rise to a culture of impunity championed by the secretive deliberations of the parliament's bureau, a political body composed of its leadership.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) has also historically opposed greater transparency, including efforts to expose their monthly expense allowances.

German centre-right EPP members also once proposed to hold a secret ballot on measures demanding greater public insight into lobbying influence on lawmakers.

Now the EPP is being accused of instead targeting civil society in light of the bogus NGO fronting for the Qatari regime that led to a Belgian police raids of MEP offices.

A similar NGO, exposed by an EUobserver investigation into Moroccan lobbying, was also later dismantled.

But Nina Katzemich of the German-based advocacy group, LobbyControl, says the problem does not lie with NGOs.

"The problem lies with EU transparency," she said.

Among them is an EU joint-transparency register that lists some 12,000 lobbyists aiming to influence the various EU institutions and MEPs.

The register is riddled with incorrect data and lacks proper enforcement. Campaigners says it needs to be cleaned up and become legally binding.

"It's completely bizarre that a key plank of lobbying transparency, the EU's Transparency Register has been taken completely off the table when it comes to solutions," said Katharine Ainger, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, a pro-transparency NGO.

Others note that 14-point plan, proposed by European Parliament president Roberta Metsola in January, has also so far largely failed to deliver.

According to Transparency International, there has been no progress on mitigating potential MEP conflicts of interest, on regulating lobbying, and on protecting parliamentary staff whistleblowers.

The public is also being kept in the dark on the ethics reforms as the revisions are being discussed in a secretive so-called Working Group on the Rules of Procedure, composed of seven MEPs.

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