The European Commission should start publishing comprehensive minutes of the meetings of the 830 expert groups the executive uses to inform its policy decisions, an EU watchdog has said.
The European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, investigates institutional maladministration either in response to complaints or under her own initiative.
O’Reilly began a probe into the system of expert groups, which were criticised as lacking transparency and being skewed in favour of industry in her subsequent consultation, in May last year.
There are 25,000 members of the 830 expert groups. They are made up of national, industry and civil society representatives. Expert group feedback is one of the methods used by Commission officials when drafting and implementing legislation.
The Commission has already told O’Reilly it will overhaul its rules for expert groups, changing its conflict of interest rules and making the member selection procedure more open. Organisations and individuals sitting on the groups must also sign up to the EU’s Transparency Register.
While recognising the executive had made progress, the watchdog today (2 February) made a further set of recommendations. They are;
- Groups’ deliberations should only be kept secret if that is “objectively justified”;
- That meeting minutes make clear the opinions of individual members and are published in a timely manner;
- Agendas and documents be published in advance of meetings, and groups and sub-groups’ work is published systematically;
- Experts make annual declarations of interest;
- The Commission defines “balance” when it comes to group composition.
The Commission must respond to the Ombudsman recommendations by 30 April. The watchdog cannot force the executive to comply, but could close her investigation with a damning, and embarrassing, report.
O’Reilly said, “Much progress has been made since we started our inquiry; however citizens have a right to know fully how expert advice feeds into EU decision-making.
“Making this kind of information public will help ensure expert groups are viewed as legitimate as possible.”
The Ombudsman’s recommendation does state, “On many aspects, little now separates the Ombudsman’s position from that of the Commission.”
The executive also uses public consultations, commissioned studies, and hearings to feed into its policy decisions.
Unlike committees empowered by the executive to outline how EU law should be put in practice, the expert groups are not provided for in the EU treaties.
In April last year, environmental campaigners and the shale gas industry clashed amid accusations that companies are controlling an influential European Commission group advising on fracking policy.
The same month Greenpeace EU said that the fossil fuels industry was steering an EU expert body, a technical working group chaired by the European IPPC Bureau, which informs policymaking on air pollution.