Thursday, 7 July 2011

The new MEP code of conduct – the final reckoning

On numerous occasions over the last few months, this blog has focused on the cash-for-influence scandal in the European Parliament and its aftermath – specifically the process to develop a code of conduct for MEPs. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has blogged about MEPs and their second jobs which provoke conflicts of interest, MEPs and their illegible financial interest declarations and former MEPs going through the revolving door into industry lobby jobs. We’ve shown how, in many ways, the Sunday Times' exposé was a scandal waiting to happen and we've also, at times, expressed our frustration about the code of conduct process itself.

But now that the final code has been approved and published, we can begin to assess what progress has been made – and whether the code will really make a difference to the way that the Parliament conducts its affairs.

Top of the list of demands for the code from both CEO and the ALTER-EU (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation) coalition, was tough action to ban MEPs from having paid second jobs which provoke conflicts of interests with their work as an MEP. Our analysis is that as many as one in seven MEPs might have such paid jobs, and of course, it was the willingness of Strasser, Severin and Thaler to accept lucrative jobs and table amendments from those paymasters which was at the heart of the scandal.

The code does not ban such problematic second jobs outright, which is a huge missed opportunity, but it does outlaw “soliciting, accepting or receiving any direct or indirect financial benefit or other reward in exchange for influencing, or voting on legislation, motions for a resolution, written declarations or questions tabled in Parliament or any of its committees”. This, together with a subsequent clause which demands that MEPs “immediately take the necessary steps to address” conflicts of interests, should require those who have second paid jobs as lobbyists, corporate board members, lawyers etc to decide between these and their role as an MEP – and to take action accordingly.

Also on our list were improvements to declarations of financial interests. The code will now require MEPs to give far more detail about their outside interests, including their income from second jobs, and their shareholdings. With this new information, monitoring potential conflicts of interest should prove much easier for citizens and activists in the future, especially if the Parliament sticks to its commitment to publish these declarations “in an easily accessible manner”. One can only hope that this will mean a ban on the publication of (illegible) handwritten declarations!

MEPs who leave Parliament and go on to become lobbyists will, under the code, have to surrender their access passes to the European Parliament. Instead they will have to join the lobby transparency register like everyone else. And MEPs will be banned from accepting paid trips, expensive gifts and other perks, or at least those valued at over 150 euros.

So far so good.

And yet, there are also some glaring gaps in the code too. MEPs failed to introduce a cooling off period for former Members who go through the revolving door into industry lobby jobs, seemingly nervous about their legal powers to regulate ex-MEPs (even though those same MEPs may receive a generous transitional allowance after the end of their term in office).

MEPs also ducked out of creating an independent ethics committee to monitor and enforce the code. Instead a handful of MEPs will form an 'advisory committee' and will judge their own colleagues, with only the option to consult outside experts. This is a particular disappointment as, at the parliamentary hearing into the code of conduct at which ALTER-EU gave evidence, this was an issue where there was unanimity among the witnesses.

MEPs have also failed to address the issue of cross-party groups and specifically the unregulated forums which bring together MEPs and industry representatives. These forums provide an opportunity for under-the-radar lobbying and need to be regulated at the earliest opportunity.

So all in all, the issue of transparency and ethics regulation in the Parliament is 'work in progress' but there are some obvious next steps which could tighten up what is already there:

1. The Bureau (the EP President and the vice-presidents) now need to come up with implementation measures for the code. This will be key as the code is only a framework and how it works in practice needs further elaboration. As part of this, the Bureau should develop a complaints mechanism to allow MEPs, the media, NGOs and citizens to submit evidence when they perceive a breach in the rules. Critically, the Bureau must devote the required budget to ensure that the authorities have the capacity to implement and enforce the code. Even in these fiscally-straightened times, it is not hard to make the case for extra funds to be dedicated to cleaning up conflicts of interest in the Parliament.

2. The President and the new advisory committee will need to be vigilant in enforcing the rules. They should take independent advice and be prepared to launch investigations whenever serious allegations of wrong-doing are made.

3. It is expected that the legislation which governs MEPs' conduct (the Members' statute) will need to be updated in the light of the code. This would be an opportunity to introduce a full ban on second jobs which provoke conflicts of interest, a cooling-off period for former MEPs entering lobby jobs, and tougher sanctions for breaches of the rules.

But perhaps most importantly of all, the new code should challenge all MEPs to take a look at any outside interests and, where necessary, to make decisions to ensure that they act wholly within the spirit and the letter of the code.

"Members shall be guided by and observe the following general principles of conduct: selflessness, integrity, openness, diligence, honesty, accountability and respect for Parliament’s reputation”.

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