MEPs must serve citizens - not lobbyists
by Dean Carroll
The European Parliament has approved a strict code of conduct in an attempt to stamp out corruption, in the wake of lobbying scandals that have tainted the reputation of MEPs. The new rules – which come into effect on January 1, 2012 - will mean that parliamentarians will be forced to declare online any appointments as company board members, any paid work such as writing and lecturing amounting to more than €5,000 - and gifts valued at more than €150 must be refused.
Punitive measures for those that breach the code include the forfeiture of the MEP allowance for up to 10 days and the loss of elected positions – such as rapporteur roles - within the EP. An advisory committee will also be created to provide MEPs with detailed guidance and oversee any procedures relating to breaches of the rules. The proposals were approved by 619 MEPs, with two politicians voting against the plan and six abstentions. But campaign group Transparency International warned MEPs that "real change is only achieved if the code is implemented and enforced in a rigorous and transparent manner".
And head of TI's EU liaison office Jana Mittermaier said it was unfortunate that the reforms did not include a "cooling off" provision, to prevent outgoing MEPs moving straight into lobbying jobs once their terms in office expired. The code also failed to include a ban on second jobs or an obligation for politicians to keep a "legislative footprint" record of all significant meetings with individuals and organisations. "The code needs to be accompanied by a strong monitoring procedure to verify financial declarations, clear operating procedures for investigations and strong sanctions," said Mittermaier. "Otherwise it remains an empty shell. Moreover, a regular review of the code will be important to ensure that its provisions are not abused or watered down."
The catalyst for the changes – drawn up in just 10 weeks - was an investigation by British newspaper the Sunday Times, which resulted in the resignation of three MEPs who had allegedly indicated that they were prepared to accept cash payments for altering draft legislation. President of the EP Jerzy Buzek claimed that the new rules would be "a strong shield against unethical behaviour", adding: "Increased power of the EP must be accompanied by increased responsibility and transparency."
Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman and rapporteur Carlo Casini MEP said some commentators had been "unfair critics of MEPs, who have demonstrated with this vote their capacity for self-discipline". He added: "It proves to the public that the parliament is a transparent body there to serve the common good and build a Europe based on freedom and justice. It also shows the renewed commitment by MEPs towards the community that elected them." Meanwhile, EP vice-president for transparency Diana Wallis MEP said anyone contravening the code would "find their names in big, red lights flashing up on the parliament's website", adding: "This will be for all to see, including their own constituents, that they have done wrong."
The Greens-European Free Alliance representative on the working group, which designed the reforms, Claude Turmes MEP claimed that the code would address conflicts of interest and reduce the potential for corruption. "It establishes far-reaching transparency rules for legislators, including detailed declarations of financial interest and steps to prevent conflicts of interest, going beyond most international standards," said Turmes. "The code of conduct cannot simply be left to sit on a shelf. It needs to now be rigorously applied. This means ensuring sufficient human and other resources are allocated to providing meaningful oversight. The incoming EP president must prioritise the strict application and observance of these new rules." And his colleague Gerald Häfner - Green constitutional affairs spokesperson – added: "It will help to prevent misuse of office and unethical lobbying; MEPs should serve their voters and not lobbyists and this code should help restore the confidence of citizens in their elected representatives."
The code was cautiously welcomed by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the European Union, which reiterated that the rules could have been more rigorous. Spokesman for the group Olivier Hoedeman said, "We regret the lack of measures to stop MEPs moving into lobbying jobs without a cooling-off period, and the weakening of proposed rules regarding gifts that would allow MEPs to accept paid trips to luxury destinations from interest groups. It is good news that this code has been approved, although we regret that important issues were left out such as the regulation of industry-funded cross-party groups. We will be watching how well the new rules are implemented and advocating for new improvements in the run-up to the review that is planned before the next parliamentary elections."
His colleague at the campaign group Paul de Clerck added: "The ball is squarely in the court of MEPs when it comes to working within the new code, and they will need to do their homework to comply with the new rules. The code's reference to MEPs not receiving external payments to influence parliamentary activities should mean that MEPs with secondary jobs in the lobbying or consultancy fields should quit such jobs. Members will also have to maintain a far more detailed and thorough declaration of their outside financial interests and any conflicts of interest must be ruled out." Libor Roucek MEP of the Party of European Socialists, who sits on the EP Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: "There is a growing gap between the public and the parliament, especially now with the economic crisis. We wanted to show that not all politicians are crooks, that there are morals and ethics in politics."