European Year of Citizens: A chance to improve ethics and transparency

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

While the full facts that led former EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli to resign have not yet been made public, adequate measures in response to what has become the ‘Dalli scandal’ are more necessary and urgent than ever, argues Natacha Cingotti.

Natacha Cingotti is transparency campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

"2013 has been declared the ‘European Year of Citizens’ and was launched by the European institutions with an invitation for citizens to join the debate. That the European Commission and Parliament encourage citizens to engage more in decision-making processes affecting them can only be commended.

However, a reality check against the facts and citizens’ perceptions questions whether these expectations will be met and will translate into real-life changes.

A new public survey commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe, Access Info Europe, Aitec, Environmental Law Service, Health Action International and Spinwatch confirms that citizens’ perceptions are negatively impacted by the current lack of transparency and ethics regulation.

The poll was conducted by TNS opinion in six European countries – Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

Some 73% of respondents expressed concerns that lobbyists representing the business sector have too much influence on EU decisions.

The poll also shows that transparency is seen as a prerequisite for better and more balanced engagement in EU decision-making processes: 80% believe that mandatory regulation of lobbying is necessary to promote fairer participation in decision-making processes.

While the full facts that led former EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli to resign have not yet been made public, adequate measures in response to what has become the ‘Dalli scandal’ are more necessary and urgent than ever.

This year provides several opportunities that should not be missed. These include the review of the Transparency Register – the voluntary register for European lobbyists – and the creation of rules governing the European Parliament Code of Conduct. Failure to improve these would only raise further suspicions and result in further discredit.

In the upcoming review of the Transparency Register, citizens’ voices should not be left unheard. This means opening up the review process, and fully involving the European Parliament in a discussion that takes MEPs’ support for a mandatory register into account. As it stands, the register does not yet live up to its name.

It is incomplete and voluntary-only, which means that major lobby players are missing from the picture, and also that interested citizens are not able to access accurate data about who is lobbying in Brussels, with what resources, and on which topics. Such lack of transparency clearly results in power imbalances and the possibility for attempts to exert undue influence to continue unchecked.

Views on the behaviour and ethics records of decision-makers were also put to the test in the poll. Some 80% of respondents said they feel less confident that an MEP represents the best interests of citizens if they also work for a lobby group or a private company.

Such findings acknowledge the remaining loopholes of the code of conduct for MEPs: the lack of strong implementation of rules and strict monitoring of ethics standards. It is still possible for MEPs to hold significant financial interests, including occupations, in a lobby group or private sector company while serving as an elected representative.

This is neither being proactively checked, nor addressed by the Parliamentary authorities. The negative impacts of the Dalli case on the image of the European Commission should be an invitation for other EU institutions, including the Parliament, to reflect on the effectiveness of their own transparency and ethics systems.

The European Year of Citizens can only deliver if citizens’ concerns and demands are being heard and integrated into the actual policy-making processes. At a minimum, this should include addressing their demand for more lobbying transparency, and also for proactive transparency and stricter ethics behaviour by EU decision-makers.

The Transparency Register and the MEP Code of Conduct provide an important basis for this to happen, and upcoming opportunities should not be wasted by a lack of political ambition."

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