There are major concerns about the quality of data provided by members of the European Parliament to a code of conduct that was supposed to bring greater transparency, says campaign group
Last year's 'cash for laws' scandal cast a dark veil over the popularity that the European Parliament usually enjoys among citizens. Popular trust would return in 2012, we were told, following the introduction of the new code of conduct for members of the parliament, MEPs.
The code, the first of its kind, would bring ethical guidelines to decision-making and greater transparency about the outside interests and activities of MEPs, thereby allowing enhanced public scrutiny and safeguards against new scandals. At least, that was the theory. A report by Friends of the Earth Europe, analysing the declarations of interest of the 754 MEPs currently in mandate, raises serious doubts about the accuracy of the data provided by the new system and MEPs' willingness to be fully transparent about their outside interests.
While all 754 MEPs submitted declarations, the quality of information does not yet live up to the qualitative expectations. Some 88 MEPs submitted an empty declaration, just their name and the date. No factual information was provided. An additional 97 MEPs declare no professional activity prior to their mandate. If correct, this would mean almost one in four MEPs had no professional activity before being elected to the parliament.
Out of the 118 MEPs who declare remunerated outside activity, 19 do not declare any related income – a revealing contradiction. These figures and conclusions raise doubts about the reliability of the information provided in the declarations. They also question whether the parliamentary authorities are planning any serious monitoring of the system following MEPs' submissions – or is this just meant to be a paper exercise?
Our analysis finds 387 MEPs who acknowledge memberships to boards or committees, and 45 MEPs who declare 'holdings or partnerships with potential public policy implications' or positions which give them 'significant influence'. With such a significant number of MEPs declaring outside interests, a review of the risks of conflicts of interest by the relevant parliamentary authorities is very much needed.
But facts and figures aside, the ability of the public to scrutinise MEP declarations is also undermined by the format of declarations. Some 64 per cent of the declarations are handwritten, mostly in the MEP's native language, with no translation to any procedural language of the European Union. Combined with the lack of a central user-friendly database the ability of interested citizens to exercise public scrutiny is seriously reduced – in direct contradiction to the aim of the new code.
Finally the advisory committee set up by the code of conduct to provide guidance to MEPs does not have the proactive competence to review the accuracy of the declarations; it can only provide advice upon request by MEPs or the president of the parliament – de facto limiting its capacity to monitor the content of the declarations and good application of the code.
We call on parliament's president, Martin Schulz, and the responsible parliamentary authorities to take the necessary steps to avoid leaving the new code unfinished. In particular the accuracy of the information provided by MEPs should be carefully checked. Proper monitoring by the advisory committee will only be possible provided that its mandate is extended to a proactive investigative capacity.
We must not forget that the absence of rules allowed the 'cash for laws' scandal to happen. Only with a fully implemented and strong code, that is monitored, can the parliament prevent such scandals from happening again and regain citizens' trust.Natacha Cingotti is a transparency campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, which produced the report Transparency in the European Parliament – analysis of the declarations of financial interests of members of the European Parliament