Codes of conduct in the European Parliament: regulate now to regain public trust

Publication date: 
Monday, June 27, 2011

Summary of ALTER-EU press conference

Executive summary / policy recommendations: 

Welcome: Vicky Cann – ALTER-EU


Olivier Hoedeman – ALTER-EU

Jana Mittermaier – Transparency International

Vicky Cann welcomed the speakers and journalists, and set the press conference on MEP codes of conduct in the context of the recent cash-for-amendments ‘scandal’ and the Buzek working group that was set up in April to evaluate and tighten MEP codes of conduct.

Olivier Hoedeman stressed the importance of the moment we are in now. He expressed concerns that there was a lack of serious political will and that some members of the working group were trying to block an effective code of conduct. He stated that while MEPs must clearly not be paid for lobbying work, there are two other priorities in this area as far as ALTER-EU are concerned:

1) MEP second jobs

- 1in 3 MEPs have second jobs.

- 1 in 7 MEPs have second jobs that involve a potential conflict of interest.

- There should be a ban on all second jobs where conflict of interest is a risk.

2) Cooling off period:

- Currently MEPs can move directly into jobs that involve lobbying once they leave their position as an MEP.

- ALTER-EU suggests that there should be a compulsory 18 month cooling off period for ex-MEPs before they are able to move into lobbying work.

Jana Mittermaier concurred with the concerns and the demands of ALTER-EU. She added three additional points:

1) Declaration of interest

- MEPs should disclose all income from outside activities in order to reduce corruption.

- This information should be published in real time, online and in Excel format so that it can be monitored.

2) Ethics working group transparency

- Currently the Buzek Working Group is not planning to publish its draft code of conduct before the vote, preventing any chance for civil society and European citizens to influence the draft.

- There is also no plan for this code to be reviewed and adapted in the future.

- The working group should have a standing secretariat, a statute and an independent mandate. It should be able to resolve disputes, monitor MEP activities and provide an annual report.

- The group must be expanded to include independent, external members in order to increase legitimacy and objectivity.

- All of the work of the ethics committee should be published and easily accessible.

- There should be a guidance document for the MEP code of conduct.

- There should also be protection for whistle blowers.

3) Legislative footprint

- (A list of registered interest representatives who were consulted and had any input, and details of the meetings held and the processes involved leading up to legislation being passed or amended.)

- Despite the fact that MEPs have formally accepted the need for legislative footprints, the Buzek working group have not been in favour of codifying a legislative footprint for their work.

- Legislative footprints for this group and other MEPs should be compulsory.

- There should be sanctions in place.

Questions from the floor

1) Could you expand on the issue of MEP second jobs, and explain why it is problematic for MEPs to work for law firms?

- Many law firms are involved in lobbying work at the EU, meaning that it is problematic for MEPs to be involved with these firms. Where there is no conflict of interest, exceptions could be made. In these cases it would be especially helpful to have accompanying guidelines to the code of conduct.

2) Could you give an example of second jobs that do not pose a conflict of interest for MEPs?

- Working as a University lecturer, or as a part-time farmer on a personal farm, in addition to many others.

3) Have you found that the MEPs are trying to block these reforms?

- The EPP representatives for example have been very resistant and hostile to the whole agenda.

- There seems to be a problem in that some MEPs do not feel that they are responsible to all EU citizens once they have been elected. Sometimes these problems also develop from cultural differences.

- The European Parliament should be an exemplary parliament for all the member states to follow. However, MEPs tend not to want to adopt proposals that do not already exist in national member states. As a result MEPs are less regulated in terms of codes of conduct, than in many member states, despite the fact that they are exposed to greater lobbying pressure and influences.

- Austria has been setting a good example following the involvement of their MEP in the ‘cash-for–influence’ scandal. These include sanctions and fines for unregistered lobbyists, or lobbyists trying to employ MEPs. The European Parliament could follow examples such as these.

4) What expectations do you have of the joint register that will be coming out this week?

- It is certainly a positive step forward and linking registration to access passes will increase the incentive to register. However, it is still not mandatory and as a result, unregistered lobbying will continue, with or without access passes. A mandatory register must still be the long term goal.

- Additionally it is important not to confuse the issues of lobbyists and MEP codes of conduct. It is important to regulate lobbying activity, however now we have an opportunity to create meaningful codes of conduct for MEPs and this should remain a focus.

5) Has the US parliament model and code of conduct been used as an example by the European Parliament at all?

- There tends to be a negative reaction when examples outside of the EU are mentioned in the EP, as it is felt that systems such as the US are too different to be relevant. This is a shame as the as the US regulations on second jobs and cooling off periods could be useful.

- The Buzek working group has looked at the codes of conduct from 8 member states including France, the UK, Ireland and Portugal. This is concerning as these are not necessarily the states with the most effective or progressive legislation in this area. The Netherlands, for example has useful legislation on declarations of interest, and many of the newer member states have stronger legislation on financial interests.

- In addition to not looking at the strongest codes of conduct, the Buzek working group’s time frame and process will naturally lead to watered down legislation. Vicky Cann summarised the press conference, and concluded that we currently have a unique opportunity as civil society and the media to intervene and put pressure on the Buzek working group in order to create a robust, transparent and effective MEP code of conduct. We should also bear in mind that this is also a chance for Buzek to leave a lasting legacy of his presidency.

Pictures of the event are available at:

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