Parliament half-opens its doors to OLAF


The European Parliament made today (31 March) a small step forward in a corruption case involving at least four MEPs by admitting that it is within the remit of the EU's anti-fraud office to investigate the matter. But it stood firm in its insistence that any such investigation would require a mandate from a national judicial authority.

The Conference of Presidents, which groups together the Parliament president and political group leaders, backed a proposal from Parliament President Jerzy Buzek's to provide OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, with the emails that Vice-President Diana Wallis received from the Sunday Times.  

Reportedly, these emails contain information gathered by journalists at the Sunday Times, who pretended to be lobbyists and offered money to MEPs in exchange for legislative amendments (see 'Background').

However, OLAF investigators would still have to wait before they could interrogate the MEPs concerned or search their offices.

EURACTIV has learned that all group leaders have backed Buzek's assertion that in the absence of a European public prosecutor, any OLAF investigation of MEPs' private offices must require a mandate or order from a national judicial authority.

Even the Greens/European Free Alliance group, which has been most vocal in calling for transparency, aligned with this view, sources said.

Reportedly, Austria and Slovenia have asked the Parliament to lift the immunity granted to Ernst Strasser and Zoran Thaler, thus allowing for such investigations to take place.

Preventive measures: Mandatory register for lobbyists

Just before the meeting, Buzek circulated a letter to political group leaders tabling a number of suggestions on how to deal with what he called "the consequences of disappointing behaviour on the part of some of our colleagues".

Buzek also outlined proposals to limit the risks of similar scandals in the future.

Concretely, the Parliament will now ask the European Commission to come forward with legislation to establish a mandatory register for all EU institutions.

Until now, lobbying activity is subject to a voluntary registers that apply only to the Commission and the Parliament.

The Parliament also envisages creating a de facto mandatory register for lobbyist visitors, requiring them to register on a daily basis even if they hold a one-year access pass. The register is expected to keep track of who they are meeting and which meetings they are attending in the European Parliament.

Furthermore, MEPs who advocate any cause or interest in which they have a direct financial interest (or an anticipated interest) will be asked to make this fact known clearly and unequivocally in writing.

As the scandal involving the four MEPs revealed that many parliamentarians in fact have 'second jobs', oversight will be strengthened by asking members to update their existing declarations of interest more regularly than once a year.

In addition, MEPs who are rapporteurs would be required to publish a 'legislative footprint' requiring them to list clearly all outside organisations or individuals with whom they have consulted or from whom they have received advice while preparing their reports.

Buzek deplored the fact that the Parliament was eagerly commenting on the new Code of Conduct for European Commissioners without having in place an effective one of its own. Apparently, such a code would include sanctions and give an ethics committee the power to deal with individual cases.

"I propose that we look closely at the commissioners' code, as well as the obligations in the 27 national parliaments, to see whether there are certain general principles on which we can readily agree," he said.

EPACA, the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association, released a statement in support of the Parliament's pledge to establish a mandatory register.

"Any efforts to develop policies on transparency within the EU institutions that go beyond the content of the draft agreement on the establishment of a joint 'Transparency Register' would be best handled through mandatory legislation with specific, clear definitions applied equally to all lobbyists, whether housed in an NGO, a consultancy, a law firm, an association, a company, a think-tank or anywhere else," EPACA said.

"We welcome rules that address the problems that exist while recognising that ethical, transparent lobbying is an important part of policy development in a democracy that provides policymakers with the views of a wide range of affected interests including NGOs, industry and others," the statement continued. 

"Ensuring that any new rules adopted are applied equally and fairly to all lobbyists is critical. Hopefully, these rules will be developed in a way that promotes legitimate contact between the European Parliament and the wide range of interests with which it interacts every day, and also in a way that ensures that all such lobbying is ethical and transparent," EPACA said. 

During the course of an eight-month investigation, journalists from the Sunday Times posing as lobbyists contacted some 60 MEPs to test their ethics.

The reporters wanted to verify allegations that some politicians were prepared "to sell their services" to push through specific amendments to EU legislation in exchange for remuneration, the broadsheet revealed on Sunday 20 March.

Following the revelations, two MEPs resigned (Austria's Ernst Strasser; European People's Party) and Zoran Thaler of Slovenia (Socialists & Democrats). MEP Adrian Severin (S&D), who is a former deputy prime minister of Romania, was expelled from his political group but vowed to stay on as an MEP in order to clear his name.

The following weekend, the Sunday Times published revelations about the next victim of the sting, Pablo Zalba Bidegain, a 37-year old MEP from the centre-right European People's Party. The Spanish MEP, who is a former businessman, insists that he refused to accept payment.

More such revelations are expected, as reportedly 14 more MEPs took the bait.

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