MEPs to decide whether to make lobbying meetings public

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MEPs are set to decide on Thursday (31 January) whether to make their meetings with lobbyists public. The centre-right has secured a secret ballot on this issue. EURACTIV France reports.

MEPs are reluctant to open up their agendas to the public. Having been called to vote on the reform of the rules of procedure of the European Parliament, MEPs will have to decide whether they want to make the publication of meetings between lobbyists and MEPs compulsory. This practice is already in force for European Commissioners.

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On many occasions, the relationship between MEPs and lobbyists has made headlines in Brussels, a focal point of European lobbying where large firms do not hesitate to do everything possible to influence decision-makers. There are the examples of lobbying by Philip Morris International against the tobacco directive or lobbying by Youtube against the copyright directive.

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With a few months to go until the European elections, there is no consensus on the matter of transparency concerning lobbying activities. The idea of publishing a list of meetings between lobbyists and MEPs was only adopted by a small margin in the parliamentary committee.

Secret ballot

There will be strong resistance for the vote in the plenary session scheduled for Thursday. The largest political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) requested – and secured – a secret ballot.

The majority of the European centre-right group oppose the measure, which was criticised as an “obstacle to the way in which elected representatives exercise their mandates,” German EPP MEP Daniel Caspary said in a message sent to his colleagues.

However, it is a subject which divides the EPP. “Personally, it absolutely doesn’t bother me, I’ve done this both, notably concerning the posted workers directive. It shows the boundary of legislators’ work, so I will be voting in favour of this measure,” stated French MEP Elisabeth Morin-Chartier (EPP).

The EPP is not the only group to line up against making such meetings transparent, with the liberals generally opposed to the measure and the socialists divided. Moreover, the French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) will also vote against the measure.

“But it’s a major issue for the European Parliament,” considered French socialist MEP Pervenche Berès. “And this request for a secret ballot is not a very good omen,” she added.

Pascal Canfin, director general of WWF France, and Marc-André Feffer, president of Transparency International France, also expressed their support for the reform.

“While it’s not about stopping [lobbyists] from interacting with policymakers, it’s vital to ensure an equitable dialogue with all of the stakeholders. Transparency about meetings with people who make the law is a precondition for a balanced public debate,” they stressed in a column published in the Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper.

The idea of publishing meeting agendas makes some MEPs twitch because they see it as an attack on the freedom of elected representatives, while others consider it to be too heavy an administrative burden. The question of whether MEPs keeping company with certain lobbies too often will be stigmatised is also a factor.

However, the proposed amendment limits quite strictly the conditions for disclosing agendas. “It’s a compromise amendment which only targets MEPs responsible for dossiers,” explained Berès.

Only rapporteurs, shadow rapporteurs and committee presidents would be subject to the obligation of transparency. MEPs who are not at the forefront with respect to legislative dossiers would therefore not have any obligation, but would be encouraged to publish their agenda on a voluntary basis.

A further safeguard is the fact that informal meetings are not covered by the obligation of disclosure. An MEP being approached at a public meeting or street corner by a lobbyist, with whom no meeting has been planned, would therefore not be obliged to make this meeting public.

Addressing harassment

Another sticking point is the matter of psychological and sexual harassment. Five years ago, a committee to tackle harassment was established at the European Parliament and an ethical charter was developed. The latter is to enter into force during the next parliamentary term. In the event of proven harassment, it stipulates that victims can keep their pay and stop working with the accused person.

The revision to the Parliament’s rules of procedure stipulates that any MEP refusing to sign this ethical charter “may not be elected as office holders of Parliament or one of its bodies, be appointed as rapporteur or participate in an official delegation or interinstitutional negotiations.”

The EPP has also requested a secret vote on this safeguard. However, there are few arguments among EPP MEPs, who requested that the vote be secret and are opposed to the measure.

In his message to other MEPs, Caspary questioned the use of such a code of conduct, before concluding “let’s actively fight against harassment and not add an administrative burden which will be of no use to anyone.”

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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