Friday, 3 June 2011

Back to business as usual for MEPs?

Concerns about excessive bureaucracy, or arbitrary limits being placed on gifts which MEPs can receive, or fears for the careers of MEPs at the end of their term in office, were just some of the disappointing responses when the ALTER-EU coalition gave evidence on the new proposed code of conduct for MEPs on Tuesday night.

As a result of the Sunday Times' cash-for-amendments expose earlier this year, a working group of 10 MEPs, chaired by European Parliamentary President Jerzy Buzek MEP has been working to develop a code of conduct for MEPs.

Unfortunately, there is little information publicly available about the work of this group: there is no public website hosting meeting agendas, minutes and drafts, for example. However, earlier this week, the working group did invite the ALTER-EU coalition and others with an interest in these issues to comment on a whole range of questions posed by MEPs about the code. ALTER-EU was represented by Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe.

ALTER-EU's key recommendations to the group included:

- A ban on MEPs holding paid second jobs that require representation or lobbying
- A cooling-off period for former MEPs accepting lobbying jobs to stop 'the revolving doors' syndrome
- An ethics committee with external representation to police and enforce the code of conduct

Not surprisingly perhaps, there was a lot of commonality between ALTER-EU's position and that of other participants such as Transparency International and the International Press Association. The European Ombudsman who was also present and made a statement also agreed that it would be in the interests of the Parliament to have an independent mechanism to govern the code of conduct.

Indeed one of the remarkable things about the hearing was the degree of consensus amongst those giving evidence - and when we are talking about ALTER-EU and business lobbying associations, that's not something that can often be said!

For example, the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association agreed that it was a good idea to have a cooling-off period for MEPs and that MEPs should not be lobbyists as a second job. Meanwhile the Society of European Affairs Professionals supported the need to have external involvement in the ethics committee.

But while there was a broad consensus amongst those giving evidence, there was little consensus evident amongst the MEPs present.

One MEP argued that the special nature of being an MEP precluded external intervention in their affairs and that setting a financial limit on gifts and hospitality would be arbitrary. Others were concerned to avoid excessive bureaucracy, or worried about the legal basis upon which to regulate former MEPs, once they have left office. And while we can all agree that MEPs might need more guidance on some of these issues, in and of itself, guidance will not be enough.

Our concern is that as the initial shock of the Sunday Times' scandal dwindles, these MEPs feel under less and less pressure to put in place solid rules which will avoid a repeat of such a scandal in the future. Meanwhile, Adrian Severin, one of the Members caught by the Sunday Times, continues to shamelessly operate 'business as usual' as an MEP.

The Buzek working group has set themselves a tight timetable to complete their work by late June. Based on the evidence from this hearing, coming up with a code of conduct upon which all members of the working group can agree - and which is truly robust - could be a very tall order.

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