Monday, 18 January 2010

Šefčovič announces lobby transparency follow-up, but level of ambition unclear

There was both good and bad news from the Parliament’s hearing with designate Commissioner Šefčovič today. On the positive side, Šefčovič confirmed that he will continue the European Transparency Initiative and that he will put pressure on law firms to join the lobby register. He also acknowledged that the Commission needs stronger rules for Commission staff going through the revolving door into industry lobbying. On the negative side, Šefčovič did not appear very ambitious in terms of pushing for genuine lobby transparency and the strong conflict of interest rules that the EU needs so badly.

The revolving doors problem needs to be addressed, Šefčovič admitted, adding that the rules that apply to Commissioners should be incorporated in the rules for Commission staff (Staff Regulation). But when asked for dates, Šefčovič did not go beyond a disappointing “at the latest in 2012.”

His assessment of the Commission’s current lobby register is unrealistically positive, but this perhaps reflects the briefing he has received from officials rather than his own analysis of the register as it currently stands. “We got the lobbyists under control”, Šefčovič claimed, arguing that there are “2300 companies” in the register and that “the voluntary and incentives-based approach works”. In reality, less than 1/3 of Brussels-based lobbies have joined the voluntary register. The information disclosed by the minority that did join is seriously unreliable.

As the Commissioner gets to grip with his brief, and starts to work closely with the European Parliament, the merits of a mandatory scheme may become more obvious and attractive. Šefčovič referred to the talks that will restart with MEPs in February in the socalled ‘high-level working party’ about the creation of a joint register, mentioning that the European Parliament’s lobbyists’ access pass system could be a helpful addition to the current register. The MEP members of the high-level working party are clearly in favour of a mandatory register.

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Barroso takes risk in backing Jeleva

Friday 15 January late afternoon, Commission President Barroso replied to the letter that the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek had sent him a day before.
In his response Mr. Barroso backs Ms. Jeleva. Interestingly, Mr. Barroso puts his full trust in a short written statement by Ms. Jeleva, attached to Mr. Barroso’s letter to Mr. Buzek, in which she states that her “declaration of interest, signed on the 17 December 2009 and submitted to the Commission in accordance with the Code of conduct for commissioners, is fully accurate and complete.”
There is absolutely no indication that the Commission has double checked Ms. Jeleva’s statement. In fact Mr. Barroso admits that “the Commission, like the EP, relies on the statements of the individual concerned, lacking any specific procedure of control in the Union law in this respect.”
This confirms the serious issue we raised on this blog last Friday: the Commission is not scrutinising Commissioners’ declarations of interest, even in the case of Ms. Jeleva, about whom serious rumours have circulated in the media and in the Parliament since her designation as Commissioner in November 2009.
President Barroso takes quite a risk by not waging a serious investigation of the accuracy of Ms. Jeleva’s declaration of interest and of potential conflicts of interest that she may have. If the European Parliament’s legal service will detect irregularities, the reputational damage will now also extend to Mr. Barroso himself.

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Friday, 15 January 2010

Barroso fails to screen Jeleva on potential conflicts of interest

During her hearing in Parliament on Tuesday 12 January, designate Commissioner Rumiana Jeleva came under fire over potential conflicts of interest resulting from undeclared business interests. She was also accused of irregularities in the declarations of financial interests that she filed as a member of the European Parliament (2007-2009). After the hearing there was a lot of doubt about her ability to handle the portfolio she has been assigned. At the time of writing, Ms. Jeleva’s chances of becoming European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response look very slim indeed.

After the hearing, there has been a lot of confusion about the allegations of a conflict of interest and lack of transparency. European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek reportedly sent a letter to Commission President Barroso on Thursday 14 January, asking Mr. Barroso to confirm whether Ms Jeleva’s declaration of interest is in line with the Code of Conduct for Commissioners and whether he still considers her the right candidate for the post she was assigned to.

Concerns about Ms. Jeleva’s conflicts of interest were voiced at the time when her designation was first announced by Barroso in November, so she should have been thoroughly screened by the Commission a long time ago. The prolonged confusion over Ms Jeleva’s real or perceived irregularities and Commission President Barroso’s continued silence indicate that the Commission has failed to do serious, pro-active screening of conflicts of interest of the designate Commissioners. As a result, the reputation of the EU institutions has now been seriously damaged.

The way that the Commission deals with potential conflicts of interest of EU Commissioners is structurally flawed, as was pointed out by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) in a letter on the revision of the Code of Conduct for Commissioners, sent to Commission President Barroso on 24 November 2009.

In this letter, ALTER-EU recommended

  • a more precise definition of what constitutes a conflict of interest;
  • better transparency on financial interests of Commissioners, and
  • independent oversight of potential conflicts of interest at the European Commission.

In its letter, ALTER-EU noted that, according to the 2005 Framework agreement on EP-Commission relations, “the President of the Commission shall be fully responsible for identifying a conflict of interest which renders a Member of the Commission unable to perform her duties”. Therefore, ALTER-EU asked Mr. Barroso to outline how he will guarantee the complete independence and absence of conflicts of interest of new Commissioners. Seven weeks later, ALTER-EU has still not received any answer from Mr. Barroso.

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Öttinger under fire for ties with big energy

In yesterday's hearing, several MEPs grilled Energy Commissioner designate Günther Öttinger about his close ties with German energy companies.

Claude Turmes (Greens, LU) put the spotlight on Öttinger's close personal relationships with Wulf Bernotat and Jürgen Großman, the chief executives of energy giants E.ON and RWE. Would Öttinger stand up against Bernotat in WWF's legal complaint over a new RWE coal plant in Mannheim? How would he handle possible infringement procedures against Amprion? RWE created this “independent” network operator in order to comply with EU rules, but remains involved in Amprion as Großman is chair of its supervisory board. Could Öttinger give an assurance that EU energy policy will not be decided during the regular card nights he has with his big energy friends?

Marita Ulvskog (S&D, SE) took a similar line, worrying whether Öttinger would not be “partisan” and favour nuclear energy as well as major energy companies.

Obviously, Öttinger had prepared carefully for these questions. He stated that he had no shares in energy companies EWF, EnBW, E.ON, RWE or Vattenfall. He clarified that he had only played skat with RWE's Großman once – during a public benefit event. He assured MEPs that special and in particular economic interests wouldn't be at the centre of his work, but that he would keep close contact with all stakeholders. And he invited MEPs to check whether he kept this promise.

Remarkably, Öttinger praised the Commission for dealing more strictly with conflicts of interests and independence than any other organ he knew. But the controversy around Bulgarian designate Commissioner Jeleva indicates that the Commission fails to do serious, pro-active screening of conflicts of interest.

Despite Öttingers assurances, several other replies he made during the hearing should be reason for concern. He was cautious about splitting energy oligopolies through the so-called unbundling policy of separating production and supply from the transmission networks. This had been initiated by his predecessor and had encountered fierce opposition from German and French energy companies. And when describing his vision of a low-carbon economy, he voiced support for the contentious carbon capture and storage technology as a means to pave the way for the use of coal.

It remains to be seen whether Öttinger will manage to keep the distance from the energy giants that is needed to promote a green, safe and socially responsible energy future.

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Wednesday, 13 January 2010

De Gucht on shaky ground on corporate lobbying

Caroline Lucas MEP (Greens, UK) challenged the Trade Commissioner designate Karel de Gucht on the issue of corporate influence over EU trade policy when he appeared before the European Parliament hearing yesterday (12 January 2010).

Lucas was happy with de Gucht's strong pledge for “independence” and for countering “third-party interests where these have undue influence” in his written answer to the Parliament's questions. But she was worried that he might follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. It was former trade Commissioner Mandelson who developed the EU's Global Europe trade strategy in close co-operation with corporate lobby groups like BusinessEurope. Thus Lucas wanted to know how de Gucht would resist the undue influence of particular interest groups in the revision of this strategy.

The question seems to have caught de Gucht on the wrong foot. He started his response with the following cryptic elaborations: “I think this is a matter of personal integrity before all, I mean, I have no problem that there is full transparency, who is meeting whom at the services level, there is also a register of lobbies, I mean it's a fact of life that there are a lot of lobbyists, it's because you are important that there are a lot of lobbies.” Then he pulled his act together and assured Lucas that he would meet “all stakeholders” on an “equal basis” to “be informed about what is really at stake in the negotiations”.

Interestingly enough, de Gucht did not do so while he was Belgian minister for foreign affairs and trade. At that time he established a permanent business council of 40 entrepreneurs and chief executives of multinationals active in Belgium to “garner structured advice”. Members included the then chief executive of ING bank Michel Tilmant, the chief executive of GDF Suez Energy International Dirk Beeuwsaert, Jean Stéphenne of consumer healthcare giant GlaxoSmithKline and Nestlé's chief executive Paul Bulcke. According to Lucas, de Gucht did not set up any similar body for public interest groups. So, she asked whether he would employ “a more balanced model of taking advice in developing trade policy”.

Again, the response was rather evasive: “I already mentioned earlier in the debate that the roles of a member state and the European Union and the Commission are quite different. The work of member states before all has to do with trade promotion and I established this business council to discuss with business how we could better promote their products in third countries.” But then de Gucht hastened to say that he “also consulted with civil society on a two times a year basis on the overall topics of foreign policy” and that he “always had an open door if they wanted to come to see me”. This would also be his approach as a trade commissioner.

Consultations with civil society on overall topics twice a year? Doors that are always open? That sounds familiar.

DG Trade already organises regular meetings on EU trade policy with civil society in the context of its Civil Society Dialogue. But while this initiative has been criticised by public interest groups as little more than a PR exercise, big business enjoys numerous other channels of influencing EU trade policy – from frequent and exclusive meetings with top officials in which sensitive information is shared to their institutionalised seats in the Commission's market access teams that tackle whatever regulation stands in the way of European exports to more than 30 countries.

DG Trade also praises itself for its open door policy towards civil society. However, not rejecting a meeting when a union or an NGO requests one is not enough to “reduce the risk of the policymakers just listening to one side of the argument”. And this is what the Commission's own standards for consultation require. Lets hope we do not have to wait for the next Commission until someone takes this seriously.

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