Sunlight is the best disinfectant for EP
Only radical reform of the European Parliament can save its reputation following lobbying scandal, claims Pieter Cleppe
The recent corruption scandal in the European Parliament has now implicated five MEPs, two of which still refuse to resign from the assembly. Among these politicians, a certain kind of mentality seems to prevail.
One of them, Austrian MEP Ernst Strasser boasted: "Of course I'm a lobbyist". Seemingly making no attempt to hide their total contempt for voters, some MEPs are alleged to have suggested that they would be willing to pass legislation for whoever pays the most. It is clear that, regardless of whatever measures are taken by the parliament's authorities, changing this mentality is the biggest challenge.
Many MEPs have made public statements deploring the scandal, but it remains to be seen whether things will really improve in practice. The last time a number of scandals hit the EP, in 2008, similar promises were heard - but here we are again. We must avoid the temptation to divert attention away from MEPs by pointing to lobbyists as the problem, as they are only partly to blame and people will always look to find ways to influence decision-makers.
Instead, MEPs need to look at themselves and consider two relatively modest measures that would be very big steps towards repairing some of the damage done to the institution in which they sit. As a first step, the EP should follow the example already set by a minority of MEPs. For example, the UK's Conservative MEPs already publish a list of all the lobbyists or members of pressure groups that they have met. Every single MEP should be obliged to do the same.
As a second measure, there should be better application of the current duty to fill in a "declaration of financial interests", which requires MEPs to disclose "their professional activities and any other remunerated functions or activities". Many currently fail to disclose anything at all and, often, the information is hand-written and illegible – an indication of the low priority that most MEPs have traditionally placed on financial transparency and accountability to their electorate.
For example, on his declaration - Maltese MEP Edward Scicluna only states "non-executive directorship on the board of five Maltese private companies" and "economic consultancy". These vague declarations do not give the public much to go on and are certainly not sufficient to conclude whether a conflict of interest may arise when dealing with a particular field of policy. Breaches of the current duty to provide a "detailed declaration" such as these have, up to now, remained without consequence. In future, if legally possible, MEPs should be fined for not providing up to date information on their activities.
That MEPs are meeting with industry lobbyists, environment or transparency campaigners is not necessarily a bad thing. It would be strange if they took important decisions in a vacuum and should be expected to consult with stakeholders about often very technical and complicated issues. That a lot of them have occupations outside the EP is probably also a good thing, to the extent that it does not prevent them from fulfilling their tasks as MEPs. It makes the parliament a more diverse place, if the people in it have some real-world experience. But, if there is conflict of interest, MEPs should declare and stand down from any position that poses such a conflict.
It is also vital that all this information is disclosed to the public. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The two measures suggested would formalise something that should be expected of any democratically-elected parliamentarian. The crime is that MEPs always seem to be shamed into doing what they should be doing anyway. Rather than stopping at these modest reforms, MEPs need to make sure that they do not simply drag their heels as far as the next scandal - but clean up the parliament once and for all.
Pieter Cleppe is head of the Open Europe Brussels office