Monday, 5 December 2011

Swedish MEP lobbying row underlines need for rules on parliament-industry forums

Swedish environment minister Lena Ek last week came under fire for her role in the European Energy Forum (EEF), a cross-party group of MEPs which is funded by large corporations such as Shell, Nord Stream and Vattenfall. Ek, who acted as vice-chairman of the EEF during her time as an MEP, had failed to formally withdraw from her EEF role when she became environment minister. In an article headlined “Environment minister in controversial lobby group” Svenska Dagbladet, one of the largest newspapers in Sweden on 25 November argued that the corporate members of the EEF buy access to MEPs. The EEF's corporate members pay a fee of least 7,000 euro per year for participating in the EEF's dinner debates. The newspaper quoted Social Democratic MEP Marita Ulvskog who declined the invitation from the EEF on ethical grounds, to underline her “independence from such interests”. Green MEP Carl Schlyter commented that the EEF “is very clearly an industry-funded activity. The goal is not to have an open debate about Europe's future energy supply. They want to influence”.

In an article the following day environment spokesperson of the Social Democrats in the Swedish parliament, Matilda Ernkrans, stepped up the pressure on Ek: “I think it is very serious if Sweden now has an environment minister with very close ties to the nuclear and oil lobby”. Ernkrans suggested that the prime minister should intervene on the matter. The controversy also resulted in Svenska Dagbladet publishing a background analysis article looking into the growing lobbying pressure from industry towards MEPs, not the least from the energy and chemical industries hoping to weaken environmental regulation.

Five days after the story first broke, Lena Ek broke the silence in an interview in Svenska Dagbladet. “I understand the discussion, there are obviously problems”, EK said, but went on to argue that the EEF has a balanced programme that is approved by its MEP members and even claimed that “the politicians set the agenda”. A look at the EEF's website gives the impression that its programme is heavily industry-led, including dinner debates on 'the Finnish way' in expanding nuclear power (with the CEO of a Finnish nuclear company as speaker) and on greater gas consumption as part of climate policy (with a speaker from gas giant GDF Suez), although the programme also features corporate speakers on solar and wind energy. The EEF has also this year organised MEPs visits to the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and to a nuclear power plant in France (“at the invitation of AREVA and EDF”). The next dinner debate, in the coming week in Strasbourg, features a Eurelectric lobbyist on “Improving the Energy Efficiency Directive“. Eurelectric is lobbying heavily for weakening the directive.

Responding to what her approach was to handle the heavy lobbying which MEPs are faced with, Ek relied: “by being open about who you meet with and trying to organise it in a transparent organisation that follow the rules of the parliament”. If this refers to the EEF, then Ek's remarks are unjustified. The EEF is not a recognised Intergroup and therefore does not actually fall under any European Parliament rules. This is a serious loophole in the European Parliament's transparency and ethics rules. As shown in a May 2011 report by Corporate Europe Observatory, the EEF is one of least 15 unregulated cross-party groups that are “acting as 'submarines of industry', bringing together MEPs and industry under the radar of Parliamentary rules to achieve policy and legislative changes that benefit industry”. Unfortunately cross-party groups were not included in the Parliament's new code of conduct for MEPs that was approved last week. The debate in Sweden shows that strong rules are needed. Such rules should include a mandatory transparency register as well as ethics obligations.

The EEF has in the meantime updated its website so there is no reference to Lena Ek anymore.

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