The credibility of the European Parliament has been dealt a blow by allegations in the most recent edition of a British paper, the Sunday Times, that three of its members took secret payments to table amendments on behalf of a lobbying firm representing private clients. Two of the MEPs have already resigned over the affair, and the third is fighting a desperate rearguard action.
The Parliament’s accessibility to a wide range of interest groups is one of its chief virtues. It is also its Achilles heel, as evidence mounts that a well-financed corporate lobby has abused this access and a small number of MEPs have taken advantage of weak lobbying controls to pervert the EU legislative process for their personal gain.
Open and transparent lobbying is part of the healthy functioning of democratic institutions. When shrouded in secrecy, it can become the cloak for unethical and sometimes illicit behaviour. This undermines the work of the majority of hard-working and scrupulous MEPs who rely on in informed dialogue with a range of actors to carry out their duties.
In spite of the risks, the Parliament has neglected to put in place basic procedures to safeguard its ethical reputation. There is still no ethics committee. There is no explicit code of conduct for MEPs to adhere to. The provisions for disclosure of financial interests and other conflicts of interest are weak and voluntary. There is no way of tracking how the advice and other information sought by MEPs is translated into legislation. Sanctions are risible (ten days’ suspension), and enforcement mechanisms practically non-existent. The creation of a ‘transparency register’ of lobbyists, which will soon cover the Parliament and the European Commission, was a positive step, but it relies on voluntary disclosure.
There needs to be a new and robust code of conduct that would replace the ineffectual provisions in the Parliament’s current rules of procedure. This is essential not only to prevent corruption, but also to protect those MEPs who work in a wholly accountable manner, by (for example) voluntarily publishing details of their meetings with lobbyists. This new code would include: proper ethical standards regarding conflicts of interest; detailed and up-to-date reporting requirements on MEPs’ financial interests and their membership of organisations; the obligation to publish a ‘legislative footprint’ (a formal record of how advice received influences reports and amendments); and special requirements for MEPs who are selected as rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs.
Codes of conduct can become mere lip service to transparency and ethics unless accompanied by robust supervision and enforcement. Without such credible measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption at the EU level, institutions such as the Parliament risk undermining European democracy and risk a further loss of EU citizen’s trust in their work.
There is one final, critical point. These allegations are so grave that there has to be doubt that the Parliament will be prepared to tackle all the issues raised as thoroughly and effectively as is needed. The investigation of these accusations should therefore not be solely an internal Parliamentary matter, and we therefore welcome the news that the EU’s own anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, has launched an investigation and that the anti-corruption agencies in Slovenia and Romania are also conducting their own inquiries.
The European Parliament should now be prepared to lift the immunity of any MEP who may have contravened the anti-corruption legislation of the member state they represent. Taking these steps would be a powerful signal to the electorate that the European Parliament prizes integrity above self-regulation.
Jana Mittermaier heads the Brussels office of Transparency International.
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