The European Parliament refused to cooperate with an EU institutional-wide study on integrity and ethics by Transparency International, one of the world’s most prestigious anti-corruption NGOs.
“The European Parliament, despite its publicly-stated support for greater transparency was, in fact, the only institution that refused to cooperate,” said Michiel van Hulten, who heads Transparency International’s EU office in Brussels.
The parliament did the same in 2014, when the NGO launched a similar probe.
A letter sent by the parliament’s president at that time claimed itself to be “extremely transparent” and so saw no need to cooperate.
It has now sent the very same letter to its most recent study.
“They unfortunately did not go through the trouble of writing a new letter,” noted the lead author of the reports, Transparency International’s Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm.
He ascribed the parliament’s decision as an overall lack of accountability within its administrative leadership.
This includes the ‘Bureau’, composed of the secretary general and the vice presidents.
“Honestly we are not sure what ultimately the reason is,” he said, noting that the initial response had been positive.
But the final study, also published on Thursday, noted almost zero penalties whenever an MEP breaks internal house conduct rules.
Instead, a small in-house advisory committee is charged with making sure MEPs follow the rules.
But that same committee is composed of MEPs – and any sanctions must be rubber-stamped by the parliament’s president.
Other shortfalls include no systematic check on financial declarations of MEPs’ lucrative side jobs, ineffective whistleblower rules for parliamentary assistants, and conflicts of interests for MEPs leading major policy files.
Hoffmann-Axthelm warned such lax oversight “poses a significant risk” of scandals involving MEPs.
There were some positives and improvements, however.
The parliament’s ‘legislative observatory’, which tracks legislation, was deemed to be good.
And MEPs leading policy files, known as rapporteurs, now also have publish meetings they hold with lobbyists. So do committee chairs.
EU’s black box
But of all the institutions, the Council, representing member states, remains the so-called ‘black box’ of decision making.
Composed of representatives of national governments, the Council has a long history of keeping the public in the dark.
The co-legislator is hamstrung by a culture of consensus.
Even though its own rules of procedure can be changed by a simple majority, it has refused to do so in spite of multiple attempts in the past seven years.
“So for seven years they have blocked each other, on something which can be done by simple majority,” said Hoffmann-Axthelm.
This includes attempts to improve legislative transparency, currently supported by 10 EU states.
However, when it came to the obligation of professional secrecy, the rules of procedure were imposed.
But Hoffmann-Axthelm says the biggest issue is how the Council actively buries even the most simple information.
A 2013 judgement by the EU court of justice required the Council to stop hiding the identity of member state positions on legislative files.
To get around it, they simply stopped marking the names the member states in official documents.
“So the council responded by not even writing down the names of those countries,” said Hoffmann-Axthelm.
He pointed to a “culture of multi-lateral diplomacy” and decision-making by consensus as the primary reasons why there is almost no accountability in the Council.
It means the public and citizens are unable to hold their governments to account – since they have no idea how they voted on any particular file.
For instance, the Council has for the last five years been blocking an EU proposal to ensure greater transparency on how multinationals pay taxes.
But trying to figure out which member state is blocking it is near impossible without journalists getting leaks.
To further muddy the waters, the Council systemically restricts all legislative documents.
Member state representatives are also not bound by EU rules.
There is no common code of conduct, no minimum ethical standards, no rules on declarations of financial interests or guidelines for corporate sponsorships.
It only recently agreed to sign up to the EU’s transparency register on lobbyists. But it excludes all working group participants, national ministers, and chairs.
Instead, it only applies to permanent representatives once every 13 years plus chairs of two preparatory bodies out of 150.
EU Commission ‘best’
Of all three EU institutions, the European Commission appears to be the best in transparency and accountability.
“The overall finding is that the Commission is further advanced in its transparency measures than most national governments and also most EU bodies and institutions,” said Hoffmann-Axthelm.
Although implementation is a patchy, commissioners are required to publish meetings with only registered lobbyists. This has been the rule since 2014.
But this still excludes the vast majority of decision-makers, including director generals, deputy directors, unit heads and desk officers.
It also has overly restrictive impulses when it comes to releasing documents through freedom of information requests, notes Hoffmann-Axthelm.