Report of European Parliament's hearing 'Shedding light at back room deals'
This week the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) took part in a ground-breaking hearing in the European Parliament looking at on problems with the European Commission's expert groups. The hearing was initiated by Dennis de Jong (MEP, GUE/NGL) and co-organised by the Conservatives (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D), the Liberals (ALDE) and the Greens.
As policy competences increasingly shift from the national to the EU level, the European Commission has to prepare more and more important legislative and policy initiatives. Due to the diverse nature of the issues the Commission has to deal with, there is a great demand for expertise in order to make informed decisions. But the Commission has a relatively low number of in-house experts and it relies on external experts to make its proposals. These external experts come together via the Commission's expert groups, which also involve representatives from the Member States.
Expert groups are one of the channels through which the Commission interacts directly with citizens and different interests in society. But all too often, it is the representatives of corporations which dominate expert groups, significantly outnumbering the combined number of other non-state actors including trade unions, consumers, small businesses (SMEs), academics and NGOs.
The keynote speaker at the Parliament's hearing was the national ombudsman from the Netherlands, Alex Brenninkmeijer. He pointed out that currently the Commission's most important relationship is the one with industry. He opposes this “capture by interests” and wants to achieve a situation of “integration of interests”. This “capture by interests” occurs when there is a power shift towards “repeat players” such as companies and lobbyists that have professional skills, networks, financial resources and time. The constant involvement of SMEs and civil society organisations in decision-making and active effort to ensure their fair representation is the only way towards integration of interests which is what democracy should be about, according to Mr Brenninkmeijer.
The current dominance of corporate interests in the Commission's expert groups compared with that by non-state actors was criticised by the civil society organisations that joined the panel and they spoke to shed light on problems within expert groups. They also proposed solutions.
Anne Fily of the Association of European Consumers' Organisations (BEUC) reported that her organisation recently reduced its participation in EU advisory bodies (including Commission expert groups but also the consultative panels of EU agencies) from 80 to 48 as many of the groups in question did not meet the four conditions set by BEUC in order to participate. The criteria listed by Ms Fily included: a balanced composition; chairing of the group by the Commission or other EU authorities and not by lobbyists; travel reimbursement; as well as the possibility to include minority opinions in final reports.
The views of SMEs were represented by UEAPME's Dora Szentpaly who emphasised that her organisation will not accept – as it is often proposed by the Commission – to share the same seat on a particular expert group with corporate representatives like BusinessEurope as they represent entirely different interests. She also said it is not appropriate to appoint experts in a personal capacity because “everybody represents an interest in the end”.
Veronica Nilsson of the European Τrade Union Confederation (ETUC) highlighted that unions are rarely informed or invited onto groups, in many of the policy areas which touch upon the key interests of workers across Europe. She also mentioned the example of the Stoiber group on ''administrative burden'' whose proposals are quite often adopted by the Commission. The Stoiber group works on highly political questions such as reducing the threshold for information and consultation of employees, which are then adopted by the Commission as pure technicalities.
Transparency International's Jana Mittermaier stressed the need for a common, searchable database of all groups and experts advising the Commission and demanded specific quotas for the participation of different interest categories to ensure a better balance on the groups.
This demand was supported by Green MEP Helga Truepel who reminded the audience of the four conditions of the European Parliament which the Commission must fulfil in order to lift the block on 20 per cent of the expert groups' budget. Among these is the provision of safeguards against the capture of such groups by special interests, and corporate interests in particular.
Jens Nymad Christensen and Antonello Maschio represented the Commission and recognised that there was a problem with the composition of expert groups. Nevertheless, they did not explicitly link it with the excessive participation of corporations. They denied the need for any safeguards and defended their absolute right to define when it is acceptable to have groups dominated by corporations.
ALTER-EU's Yiorgos Vassalos in his presentation criticised the Commission for using the argument of the diversity in the tasks among different expert groups as an excuse as to why they should retain the primacy of corporate interests. He said safeguards against the capture by special interests should be introduced, even if specific quotas were to vary from one policy area to another. He also provided evidence to counter the Commission's claim that the expert groups' register is complete.
Michael Cashman MEP stressed how crucial transparency and participatory decision-making were in order to improve EU citizens faith in the institutions.
Meanwhile, Diana Wallis MEP referred to the positive example of how the Commission can organise a balanced collection of expertise process when it chooses to do so. The example related to on the area of contract law where it set up an expert group composed of academics, accompanied by a 'sounding board' with multi-stakeholder involvement.
Leigh Phillips from the EU Observer moderated the debate and summarised the unresolved question of the meeting: In what degree should composition criteria be general to cover all expert groups or developed on a case by case basis?
The host of the event Dennis de Jong MEP expressed his certainty that common ground could be found on Leigh Phillips' question and invited the Commission to hold informal meetings with MEPs before engaging in formal dialogue to see how progress could be made towards unblocking the expert groups' budget.
Please click here to access the presentations of:
Alex Brenninkmeijer, national ombudsman in the Netherlands
Anne Filly, Head of Economic and Legal Department of BEUC
Yiorgos Vassalos, ALTER-EU campaigner