Regner: European elections to test candidates’ true ethical colours

The European elections in 2014 will be the real testing ground on parliamentary openness and ethics, said centre-left MEP Evelyn Regner, a year after a new code of conduct entered into force following a cash-for-influence case.

Evelyn Regner is an Austrian MEP, a member of Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ), part of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament. She became a member of the European Parliament in 2009 and is currently vice-chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs.

She spoke to EURACTIV Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti

Austria's former MEP Ernst Strasser was sentenced to a four-year prison term [on 14 January] on a corruption conviction that stemmed from being caught by journalists posing as lobbyists in a cash-for-influence case. A new code of conduct entered into force on 1 January 2012. A year on, would you say members take ethical behavior more seriously?

The vast majority of MEPs have always been and remain serious, honest and ethical. That is my experience from one year as member of the Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members. But you can always find bad apples in a big basket.

The Code of Conduct is for them. Because it is a reminder to anyone who doesn't have a clean conscience that there are red lines you need to stay clear of – otherwise there will be consequences. And it is a reminder and a marker that voters have a right to know who represent them, so politicians have a duty to tell who they really are.

It is also a clear signal: as elected politicians we have to lead by example – lip service or grand declarations are not enough: "We have to be the change we want to see in politics", to paraphrase Ghandi. Now, with the new Advisory Committee, MEPs have a body within the European Parliament, that gives guidance for questions on those issues.

Would you say that trust has wrecked the image of the Parliament after three MEPs were caught accepting bribes from undercover journalists posing as lobbyists during a sting operation two years ago?

I believe European citizens and voters are smarter than judging a whole institution by the appalling ethical standards of less than 0.5% of its members. Also, voters are asked to choose carefully whom they vote for and what that person stands for.

What I hope instead set the image standards was the way Parliament dealt with the scandal. Had we done nothing, or too little too late, then I would have been very critical myself. But now Parliament acted both quickly and sharply. And let's not forget that 99% of MEPs voted in favour of the Code of Conduct.

So the image of Parliament is a different thing from the image of three rogue MEPs two years ago and their ongoing procedures. I hope the image of Parliament is set by what we do and how we do it. The image of one of the three rogues, on the other hand, was quite explicitly set by the Austrian Courts just a few days back.

How is it possible to reconcile 27 different national systems, traditions and experiences when it comes to ethics?

When people come from 27 different national backgrounds, with different national legislation and practices, it can sometimes be difficult to find what all consider a viable middle ground. Some might argue we are doing too much, while some others would say we should do even more.

Because everyone always compares with what they are used at home. There is nothing wrong or strange in that, but things are a bit different in our case. The European Parliament is the world's only publicly elected multinational parliament, so I personally believe this gives us a good case for setting our entirely own ethical standards: they should not be the least common denominator – they should be vanguard standards.

For this we need the backing of MEPs and political groups and we need to listen carefully to citizens. I want to have an unbiased and honest discussion on parliamentary openness and ethics. And we should have that as a run-up to the European elections in 2014 – a good opportunity for candidates to show their true colours.

I know many MEPs see the question of ethics as rather controversial and that some are criticising, for example, the need for disclosure of their former salaries and jobs. Of course, every MEP had a life before the Parliament, with their own experiences and views. But voters have the right to know about the past life of the people they're going to elect. In other words, democracy and transparency are two sides of the same coin.

How do you interpret the three-year period for which the MEPs have to give information on previous occupations and board memberships?

Members shall declare all the occupations they performed and the memberships they held during the three years before the parliamentary term when they make their declaration. So those members who have been elected to multiple and successive periods of office should consequently declare they have been members during those three years.

Is it possible to harmonise codes of conduct for politicians?

I don't think politicians are any special kind of creature, so if it's possible to harmonise codes of conduct for others, then why not for politicians? For the European Parliament I think we need to set our own strict standards.

And we should be at the forefront. But remember this is not a specific EU issue: All parliaments – and executives and public administrations – have to grapple with this. If others then feel inspired by the standards we eventually agree on and they want to use them, I would not mind at all, but that is as far as I would go.

Is ethics reduced to a mere accounting exercise?

The day political ethics equals accounting, then politics will have lost its soul. In the same vane, anyone who thinks that correctly filling in a declaration of financial interests is enough to show ethical behaviour is probably politically astigmatic.

A declaration is not a "letter of indulgence". Ethics is a question of trust – and trust must be earned. Parliament's continued work with the Code of Conduct must take that into account. And I see a natural role for the Advisory Committee in that work. We are not there to police, but to assist. We are not there to add red tape, but to facilitate.

Openness, transparency and ethics all go hand in hand, and correct and timely declarations are just one small step on that important walk. In my personal view a future initiative could be to develop the Advisory Committee into an ethics committee.

Has the Parliament been able in those two years to clean its image?

To be honest, I don't think there ever was a question of Parliament "cleaning its image". Three MEPs proved they were corrupt. Parliament took action. That's what happened. I have heard no one put the blame on Parliament for the wrongdoing of the three MEPs. On the contrary, I have even heard some say that the "cash for amendments" scandal in 2011 in one bizarre kind of way was a good thing: it put the focus on ethics, it moved positions forward and it put one person behind bars. Besides, I think the European Parliament, compared to many national parliaments, has very high transparency and disclosure standards – citizens can expose the bad apples.