I just started work at Corporate Europe Observatory last week as Lobbycracy campaigner. The complex and secret world of the EU institutions is not new to me: afterall I used to work on European trade policy so I'm used to seeing untransparency in action and how corporate lobby interests dominate the thinking of EU institutions.
But in my first few days in Brussels, my attention has been much more focussed on the European parliament. In the aftermath of the Sunday Times' cash-for-amendments story a couple of months ago, there has been renewed focus on MEPs' financial interests, especially where they have second jobs which bring a clear conflict of interest with their function as an elected representative.
MEPs have to submit an annual financial declaration which become publicly available and can help to highlight where an outside interest might conflict with their work as an elected Member. As an example, Slovenian ex-MEP Zoran Thaler resigned from the Parliament following his recent exposé by the Sunday Times for accepting money from undercover journalists in return for tabling amendments to legislation. He denies any wrongdoing. According to his financial declaration from 2009, he already had links with a consultancy firm (although no details of the work or the clients were provided).
So, if I wanted to assess how many MEPs have significant outside financial interests, it would be easy to check the declarations to see who has a second job and who hasn't – right?
Oh dear – how wrong I was. Ever since I and colleagues in the ALTER-EU coalition started this exercise, we have been wading through a mass of uncollated, illegible, untranslated, unclear, inconsistent and quite frankly bewildering financial declarations. And some of the problems we have encountered are really basic.
For example, the vast majority of MEP declarations that I have looked at have been hand-written (or scrawled) as opposed to typed. This has required deciphering skills beyond our capability and as an example, I will offer a prize (well an email saying thank-you) for anyone who can decipher this declaration by Spanish MEP Alejandro Cercas.
Meanwhile this one by French MEP Philippe Juvin took me, my two French colleagues and the nice woman who works at our building's reception to translate.
And while our office is pretty multilingual, in the absence of staff speaking Polish and other European community languages, there have been whole nationalities of MEPs' declarations that we have not been able to read. This is because the Parliament does not translate the information into one or two common languages.
Nor does the Parliament collate the information centrally into a database, so you need to individually click on the MEP's name on the website, and then onto their individual declaration to access a scanned PDF (of varying quality). For 736 individual MEPs, that can be a lot of clicks on the mouse! Why not give it a go?
From what I can see, there seems to be no one actively policing the system or checking that MEPs keep to the few rules that do apply to financial declarations which specify, amongst other things that “the declarations in the register shall be made under the personal responsibility of the Member and must be updated ever year”.
Therefore, a ludicrously high number of MEPs seem to get away with maintaining out-of-date declarations, many of which date back to 2009. Rough calculations show that 22 per cent of Spanish MEPs do not have an up-to-date declaration; for the UK it is 15 per cent; for the Netherlands 24 per cent; Ireland 33 per cent...
And of course, all of these concerns are to say nothing of the quality of information that MEPs are posting (once you've deciphered, translated and collated what is there). For example, is it clear what is a paid post and what is not? Not really. Is it clear that all declarations are full and complete? No, and in fact we know of several MEPs who appear to make glaring omissions in their declarations.
But more on these issues another time.
So why does all this matter? Personally I think this whole situation creates a bad impression in the minds of EU citizens who are already rather bemused about what the Parliament is for and why we need MEPs. And the MEPs who do not act in a fully transparent way, as well as the Parliamentary authorities who fail to enforce the rules, do a great disservice to those Members who do make full and transparent financial declarations.
But most importantly, as EU citizens, surely we all have a right to expect that our elected MEPs (who afterall are well-remunerated for their efforts at about 8000 euros (or £7000) per month, before tax) are honest and transparent enough to at least abide by the rules?
It would not need the application of rocket science to sort this situation out. ALTER-EU believes that it is pretty simple for the Parliament to set-up an easy-to-access register with data provided as searchable text and translated into English. Disclosure requirements must be increased in order to cover all direct and indirect financial interests of MEPs. Critically, the declarations should be verified by independent auditors to make sure the information is correct and up-to-date.