Friday, 20 May 2011

Industry lobbies step up spin on cash-for-amendments scandal

After the intense debate and media attention in the first weeks after the European Parliament's cash-for-amendments scandal broke, it has become very quiet in the last weeks. Discussions about transparency and ethics reforms in the wake of the scandal take place in secrecy in a working group of ten MEPs, led by Parliament President Buzek, in weekly meetings behind closed doors. There are apparently no plans for public hearings or even announcements before the recommendations are completed in the end of June. It's questionable whether this is the right approach: the cash-for-amendment scandal exposed a number of deeper problems in the relations between MEPs and lobbyists that should be cause for soul-searching by the full Parliament. Without a broader debate, I would argue, it is less likely that effective reforms will be endorsed by the Parliament.

Meanwhile, Brussels bubble industry lobbyists, who were very silent in the first weeks after the scandal broke, are now getting more vocal. At a Brussels debate earlier this week, two industry lobbyists commented on the scandal that it had involved only MEPs and journalists ("not a single lobbyist”) and that the journalists had violated professional ethics. This echoes previous statements by lobby consultancy coalitions EPACA and SEAP, who claimed that EU lobbying is highly ethical and that the scandal should not lead to stricter rules for lobbyists. In a remarkable and somewhat absurd 'debate' broadcasted on Romanian TV last week, three Brussels lobby consultants were like clones, repeating each other in declaring the absolute innocence of Brussels industry lobbyists. During this debate, shot in a studio inside the Parliament, Robert Mack (Burson-Marsteller and EPACA) went into overdrive claiming that "ethics is probably the most important part of what we do". A remarkable claim considering the many examples of unethical lobbying on behalf of industry and government clients which Burson-Marsteller has been involved in over the last decades. Only last week it was revealed that Burson-Marsteller US had run a highly deceptive PR attack on Google, on behalf of Facebook. Jose Lalloum of Logos claimed that EPACA's Code of Conduct is strictly enforced. A look at EPACA's website shows that there has not been a single investigation since 2006 (when an NGO and an MEP submitted complaints that were rejected by EPACA). Clearly this form of self-regulation is not a proof of absence of unethical behaviour.

Was the sting operation by the Sunday Times journalists unethical? Such claims are categorically wrong. The investigation by the Insight team was an excellent example of investigative journalism uncovering power abuses that were already going on outside of public scrutiny. Austrian MEP Strasser, to mention one example, was already covertly working for five other industry clients before the Sunday Times caught him on tape and exposed this scandalous behaviour. Journalist ethics codes endorse these types of investigations when done in the public interest and to uncover evidence that cannot be obtained otherwise. The journalists have done the European Parliament and EU citizens a great service and should be congratulated. Strasser's example also shows that there were actually lobbyists involved in the cash-for-amendments scandal. Strasser himself was operating as a lobbyist for several consultancies working for large corporate clients. And beyond Strasser's double roles, the scandal exposed a wider problem of at least a number of MEPs being far too close to industry lobbyists, relationships that can lead to corruption, but also other forms of undue influence.

Despite the flawed nature of the spin which corporate lobbyists attempt to put on the cash-for-amendments scandal, there is reason to fear that they might succeed in undermining the momentum for long overdue transparency and ethics reforms. This would be tragic as it would leave the Parliament unprotected against further scandals shaking its credibility. It is worth mentioning that the Austrian government takes the scandal very serious and is preparing a new law on lobbying (dubbed Lex Strasser) which foresees fines of up to 60,000 euros for non-registration and rule-breaking by lobbyists.

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Thursday, 19 May 2011

Bothered and bewildered – my first week in EU-land

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.

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