In a meeting with MEPs on September 5, the Commission said it would engage with the Parliament in an informal co-drafting procedure for new guidelines that will address concerns over the composition and transparency of expert groups. These guidelines would then be incorporated in the existing 'horizontal rules'.
The MEPs afterwards stated ''We are expecting a fruitful cooperation with the Commission on these matters. Today is only the beginning of a new relation based on mutual trust. The European Parliament maintains the possibility to freeze the future budgets should this not lead to the foreseen results.''
When the European Parliament imposed the budget reserve in November last year, it asked the Commission to ''modify the rules on expert groups'' regarding four different aspects.
The Commission hasn't fulfilled this condition but the Parliament's decision is a demonstration of good faith in the Commission's verbal promise to work together to change the rules. It is now up to the Commission to finally take serious action to reform expert groups. Otherwise, the budget could be blocked again for 2013.
The Commission's commitment to change remains unclear. Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič refused to co-sign the conclusions of the meeting between the two institutions. He preferred to ''broadly endorse'' them. A phrase that gives him a lot of room for manoeuvre.
Šefčovič has previously indirectly suggested changes in the rules are not needed. ''I confirm the Commission's political commitment to ensuring that all existing provisions concerning expert groups are fully implemented,'' he wrote in an e-mail to the Parliament.
But existing provisions have proven inadequate to deal with concerns:
They don't include any clear wording to prohibit corporate lobbyists from sitting in expert groups as ''impartial experts in a personal capacity''. The Commission has verbally promised it will end this bad practice a number of times (see for example here this speech in 05:29) but it still refuses to make this promise a reality. And this practice still continues.1
The existing rules only include a very vague provision regarding the balanced representation of different interests to be ensured ''as far as possible'' (i.e. not always). This leaves the Commission free to maintain a large number of expert groups dominated by corporate interests.2
The Commission recently promised that ''all relevant members will in future be selected via public calls for application (...) ensuring that the civil society organisations are informed of opportunities''. But this is not included in the rules; therefore the rules should be changed to include ''an obligatory open selection process with a public call and a published mandate of each expert group,'' as demanded by the MEPs.
The provision in the rules regarding transparency over expert groups' documents is very vague: ‘information concerning the activities (…) is made public’. It needs to be reinforced to explicitly include minutes, agendas and members' contributions. As things stand, none of these documents are actually made public for a significant number of expert groups.
ALTER-EU has proposed detailed changes that would fulfill the Parliament's demands (see the annex).