MEPs from all sides of the political spectrum last week attacked the Commission's failure to act against the industry dominance of many of its advisory bodies, the so-called expert groups. The Commission came under fierce criticism from more than 15 MEPs who took to the floor during a debate in the European Parliament’s plenary hall, demanding solutions to the expert group problem and insisting that Parliament should be involved in the decision making process.
The conflict came about after the Commission finalised new rules on expert groups at the end of 2010 - without any dialogue with MEPs or civil society. The new rules fail to solve a number of widely-recognised problems with expert groups, which include a lack of transparency and the dominance of industry lobbyists in many groups (see ALTER-EU's statement). The United Left group summed up the mood in their press release which declared “MEPs furious at Commission over shady expert groups”.
Setting up expert groups is the main way in which the Commission seeks technical, scientific, legal and policy advice. Members of these groups are often given the privileged opportunity to influence upcoming legislation long before any public or democratic debate takes place. Representatives from big business dominate more than 100 expert groups and are by far the biggest constituency in expert groups, with the exception of those representing national governments. To add insult to injury, many of the supposedly 'independent experts' that pledge to act on behalf of the public interest are in fact on the payroll of large corporations and their lobby groups. Shockingly, this is the case for over 190 lobbyists advising the Commission on financial regulation .
Monica Macovei MEP from the European People’s Party group slammed the Commission for allowing this to happen. She highlighted the lack of procedures to detect conflicts of interests, pointing out that it was not enough to simply ask expert group members to sign a declaration of commitment to the public interest. She demanded safeguards against the corporate capture of expert groups, stressing that small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) and NGOs are not properly represented.
Hans-Peter Martin MEP (Independent) demanded sanctions against expert group members who claimed to be independent while they were actually on the pay-roll of corporations.
Michael Cashman MEP from the Socialist Group (S&D) criticised the fact that the Commission’s new rules limit transparency around documents discussed in expert groups. According to the new rules, expert group members (including corporate lobbyists) have access to classified documents, but it is unclear if and how they will go through the clearance procedures provided for the Commission’s own staff members. (Rules for Commission, p. 19) The Commission is trying to avoid the publication of all expert groups’ documents in the relevant public register.
Corinne Lepage MEP from the Liberals (ALDE) demanded a change in the criteria used to select external experts to prevent the marginalisation of civil society.
Pascal Canfin MEP from the Greens said he found it “completely surrealistic” that the Commission was mainly consulting investment bankers including American ones such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs on how to change rules on banking after the economic crisis, through the expert groups dealing with financial regulation.
Dennis de Jong MEP from the United Left group last year offered his advice to the Commission on new rules for expert groups but his input was ignored. Like other MEPs, he asked the Commission to guarantee that the Parliament would be consulted on expert groups’ rules. He said he had spoken with many civil society stakeholders who said they didn't feel reassured that a balanced composition would be guaranteed by the Commission. Eva Britt Svenson, also from GUE/NGL published a statement on the matter.
The ‘responses’ from Commissioner Siim Kallas, who replaced Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič in the debate, confirmed that the Commission lacks political will. He recognised that expert groups were ''covered in obscurity'' until 2005, but argued that transparency had improved. This is in fact true given that until 2005 even the names of the expert groups were secret. It took to the Commission four more years to publish the names of the members of the groups. But the Commission seems to think that transparency should stop here and is not providing full transparency on expert group documents. And the Commission has so far failed to address the issue of industry capture of expert groups.
Kallas previously tried to hide behind the fact that expert groups don't make formal decisions, ignoring the fact that these groups are highly influential. He also questioned who could judge whether an expert group was really balanced. Yet this is entirely possible. ALTER-EU has proposed clear common criteria that all Commission departments should follow prohibiting any interest category (business, unions, NGOs or others) from having a majority in any group.
As parliamentary pressure is also growing over the revolving doors cases involving ex-Commissioners (and the resulting conflicts of interest), perhaps the time has come when the Commission will finally recognise the need to act to show that it is an independent institution, not the just the tool of corporate influence.