The European Parliament has refused to engage with Transparency International, one of the world’s most prominent anti-corruption NGOs, on an EU-wide study on integrity and ethics. “Despite openly stating its support for increased openness, the European Parliament was the only institution that refused to collaborate,” said Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International’s EU office in Brussels. When the NGO began a similar investigation in 2014, the parliament did the same.
There was no need to cooperate, according to a letter sent by the parliament’s president at the time, which claimed to be “very transparent.” It has now sent the same message to the participants in its most recent trial. “Unfortunately, they did not go to the trouble of sending a new letter,” said Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm of Transparency International, the report’s principal author. He blamed the parliament’s decision on a general lack of accountability among the administration’s leaders. The ‘Bureau,’ which consists of the secretary general and vice presidents, is part of this. “To be honest, we’re not sure what the ultimate explanation is,” he admitted, noting that the initial reaction had been positive.
However, the final report, which was also released on Thursday, found that nearly no consequences are imposed when an MEP violates internal house conduct guidelines. Instead, a tiny internal advisory body is in charge of ensuring that MEPs adhere to the guidelines. The same committee, however, is made up of MEPs, and any punishment must be approved by the parliament’s president. Other flaws include a lack of a systematic check on MEPs’ lucrative side occupations’ financial reports, weak whistleblower provisions for parliamentary aides, and conflicts of interest for MEPs in charge of significant policy issues. Such inadequate control, according to Hoffmann-Axthelm, “poses a major risk” of MEP scandals. However, there were some benefits and advances. The ‘legislative observatory’ of the parliament, which keeps track of laws, was rated as good. MEPs in charge of policy files, known as rapporteurs, can now publish meetings with lobbyists. Committee chairs are in the same boat.
The black box of the European Union however, the Council, which represents member states, remains the so-called “black box” of decision-making. The Council, which is made up of delegates from national governments, has a long history of keeping the public in the dark. A culture of unanimity stifles the co-legislator. Despite several attempts over the previous seven years, it has refused to amend its own rules of procedure, despite the fact that it can be modified by a simple majority. “So they’ve been blocking each other for seven years on something that can be done with a simple majority,” Hoffmann-Axthelm explained. This includes efforts to promote legislative transparency, which are currently backed by ten EU countries. The rules of process were imposed, however, when it came to the obligation of professional secrecy. The main concern, according to Hoffmann-Axthelm, is how the Council aggressively burys even the most basic information.
The Council was ordered by the European Court of Justice in 2013 to stop obscuring the identities of member state positions on legislative files. To get around that, they simply ceased putting member nations’ names on official documents. “As a result, the council did not even write down the names of those countries,” Hoffmann-Axthelm explained. He cited a “culture of multilateral diplomacy” and consensus decision-making as the key causes for the Council’s lack of accountability. It means that the public and voters are powerless to hold governments accountable because they have no understanding how they voted on any given issue. For example, the Council has been stalling an EU plan to require greater openness in how multinational corporations pay taxes for the past five years. However, determining which member state is blocking it is very hard without leaking information to journalists. To add to the confusion, the Council prohibits all legislative papers on a systemic basis. Representatives from member states are also not governed by EU laws.
There is no universal code of conduct, no basic ethical standards, no procedures for declaring financial interests, and no corporate sponsorship requirements. It only just consented to join the EU’s lobbyist transparency registry. It does, however, exclude all working group members, national ministries, and chairs. Instead, it only applies to permanent representatives and chairs of two preparatory organizations out of 150 every 13 years. The ‘best’ EU Commission The European Commission appears to be the most transparent and accountable of the three EU institutions.
“The overall finding is that the Commission is far ahead of most national governments, as well as most EU bodies and institutions, in terms of transparency measures,” Hoffmann-Axthelm said. Commissioners are obligated to publish meetings with only registered lobbyists, despite poor execution. Since 2014, this has been the rule. However, the great majority of decision-makers, such as director generals, deputy directors, unit heads, and desk officers, are still excluded. According to Hoffmann-Axthelm, it also has unduly restrictive inclinations when it comes to providing records through freedom of information requests.