Almost two years after the 'Dalligate' scandal, MEPs and transparency campaigners are criticising the European Commission for dragging its feet in implementing WHO transparency rules regulating contacts between policymakers and the tobacco industry.
The European Commission says it fully complies with the World Health Organisation's framework convention on tobacco control, which obliges its signatories to publish online lists of all meetings held with tobacco industry representatives, as well as the minutes of such meetings.
But citizens’ organisations and MEPs point out that the Commission communicates such information only when prompted, making any scrutiny activity a long and cumbersome exercise.
The Commission's dealing with tobacco lobbyists came back under the spotlight last week when the European ombudsman announced it had launched an investigation into allegedly "undisclosed" meetings between top EU officials and the tobacco industry.
The cabinet of president José Manuel Barroso, said it is confident the EU executive has not breached any rule. In an e-mail exchange with EurActiv, Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen, the EU Commission’s spokeswoman, wrote that the EU executive fully complies with the WHO transparency requirements.
These notably state that “In setting and implementing public health policies with respect to tobacco control, any necessary interaction with the tobacco industry should be carried out in such a way as to avoid the creation of any perception of a real or potential partnership or cooperation resulting from or on account of such interaction.”
In the opinion of the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a transparency campaign group which lodged the complaint before the Ombudsman, this implies a more proactive approach. “Transparency is not a reactive thing where the citizens have to go look for the information,” said Olivier Hoedeman from CEO.
Using EU rules on public access to documents, the CEO managed to obtain the minutes of meetings the Commission has held with tobacco lobbyists before the resignation of former health commissioner John Dalli in the so-called 'Dalligate' scandal.
“That procedure is complicated, you have to introduce a request and you have to wait a long time to get all the documents you requested,” Hoedeman explained.
The same criticism was voiced by José Bové, the French Green MEP and former Commission president candidate. In an interview with EurActiv, he said, “The problem with the procedure is that when you want to request a document, you have to request a precise document. You can’t ask for all the documents related to the meetings, it will be refused.”
This means that in order to obtain the information, Bové had to provide the exact dates of the meetings and be able to identify which precise document he wanted to see.
“They say they are transparent but only if you have the info! It’s a real police work, it’s an investigative work,” Bové said.
For CEO, and a number of MEPs pushing for more transparency, the EU Commission must take example on the countries that show the best transparency performances inside or outside the EU.
A matter of interpretation?
The Commission could start by following the example of its own health and consumer directorate, DG Sanco, which proactively publishes on its website the minutes of all of the meetings it has held with the tobacco industry.
This is not the case of other Commission departments, which do not follow such a pro-active policy, leading transparency campaigners to call the Commission's approach "unimpressive and inconsistent”.
However, the Commission shows no intention of changing its approach. In her e-mailed response to EurActiv, Hansen wrote, “The Commission's ethical framework, existing rules and tools concerning transparency and lobbying are perfectly compatible with the FCTC guidelines. The framework convention leaves a large margin of maneuver to contracting parties as to their implementation. There is no strict guideline suggesting that any meeting should systematically be recorded in minutes or immediately be made public. What is binding for all conduct, however, is the overriding general provision of the Framework Convention."
Transparency campaigners admit that the Commission has a point. But they argue that the EU Executive should still be more proactive and follow not only the letter but the spirit of the WHO convention.
“Of course it’s a matter of interpretation of the guidelines,” Hoedeman admitted, “but the Commission’s approach is not adequate. The Commission doesn’t have anything on paper about these guidelines, they react on request, it’s improvisation! DG Sanco’s approach is a good one and the Commission should now look at the WHO guidelines and translate them into a code of conduct,” he said.
For José Bové however, there is no “other interpretation possible” to the WHO guidelines.
“The rule is very clear and it’s up to the signatories to adapt their legislation to it," the told EurActiv. "What's happening is that [the EU institutions] have a very limited interpretation [of the WHO guidelines] and they’re dragging their feet when it comes to implementing it,” he added.
EU Parliament also under the spotlight
And the European Commission is not the only EU institution under the spotlight. The lack of transparency and openness over contacts and meetings with the tobacco industry is also “plaguing” the European Parliament, José Bové warned.
“There has never been at any point a true willingness from the Commission and the Parliament to really translate the WHO rules into the EU institutions regulations. That’s a major problem. Mr. Schulz [the Parliament President] never did it and never answered our demands in this regard,” Bové lamented.
The Green politician remembers the time when the tobacco directive was being discussed in the EU Assembly: “Philip Morris confessed that during that period they had sent lobbyists to influence the MEPs’ choices," he recalls. "In that context, I asked Mr. Schulz to formulate clear rules and to put them on paper, so that all MEPs who met with the tobacco lobby notify their meetings publicly, to have an obligation to disclose the content of the exchanges. Myself, as a member of the agriculture committee, I asked publicly that all MEPs disclose their relations. The answer was an extraordinary silence although I knew some of those who had had meetings.”
Philip Morris, Bové recalls, had classified MEPs as “trustworthy” or “dangerous” depending on their level of openness to its cause.
Pia Ahrekilde-Hansen, spokeswoman of the European Commission wrote to EurActiv:
"The EU has agreed legislation on access to documents. It ensures a high level of transparency, and is fully compatible with the transparency requirements of the FCTC guidelines, while allowing efficient implementation of some of the world's highest transparency standards. Needless to say, the Commission complies with this EU legislation in full.
The Commission's ethical framework, existing rules and tools concerning transparency and lobbying are perfectly compatible with the FCTC guidelines. The framework convention leaves a large margin of manoeuvre to contracting parties as to their implementation. There is no strict guideline suggesting that any meeting should systematically be recorded in minutes or immediately be made public.
What is binding for all conduct, however, is the overriding general provision of the Framework Convention.
The Commission is aware of Corporate Europe Observatory's complaint and the Commission will reply to the Ombudsman's request for information in due time. We have no further comment to make at this stage."
- 7 July: Barroso to be heard by the European Court of Justice in the 'Dalligate'
- 30 September: Deadline for the Commission's answer to the European ombudsman investigation on the contacts with the tobacco lobby