Rules or no rules, that's the question!

Publication date: 
samedi, November 12, 2011
Koen Roovers
Media title: 
New Europe

The new code of conduct for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), drafted earlier this year, seems to be turning into a battle on ethics now that more MEPs are looking at what the code might mean for them. The draft is currently being discussed in the Constitutional Affairs committee (AFCO).


The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) has been following this process closely and judging by some of the amendments tabled, it seems that some MEPs have forgotten what all this was about in the first place.

At a time of collapsing banks and governments slipping dangerously close to bankruptcy, one of the biggest lobby scandals in EU history might slip your mind. But in case anyone has forgotten, three MEPs were caught red-handed accepting lucrative second jobs and even cash in exchange for tabling amendments for journalists, posing as corporate lobbyists. Two of them, Zoran Thaler and Ernst Strasser, have since resigned; MEP Adrian Severin  remains in Parliament.

It was precisely this scandal that put pressure on the European Parliament's President Jerzy Buzek to make sure that similar scandals would be prevented in the future. A working group involving MEPs from all political groups managed to agree a text that, while not ground-breaking, nevertheless constitutes considerable progress.

Put simply, voters need to be convinced that the people they elect, act in the public interest, not in the financial interests of a private party. The code therefore states clearly:  “MEPs should not solicit, accept or receive any direct or indirect financial benefit or other reward in exchange for influencing, or voting on, legislation […] and shall consciously seek to avoid any situation which might imply bribery.”

AFCO has to be consulted before the new code is implemented as it implies changing the Rules of Procedure to which MEPs adhere. This has led to almost 50 amendments to change the code. Most of these appear to be designed to seriously weaken it.

Some of the most egregious amendments include those tabled by a group of Italian Christian Democrats who have proposed erasing large parts of the text. Their line of argument varies from 'the current rules are just fine' to suggesting that the new measures are 'dangerous', particularly the proposal that MEPs should oversee their colleagues through an 'advisory committee'. This advisory committee made up only of MEPs may not be ideal, but to abolish it entirely would be reckless.

These MEPs seem to feel that new rules regarding their behaviour are not necessary. They claim that “there is a general, or rather universal, assumption that members will vote in the public interest and are not corrupt”. But at a time of worldwide 'Occupy' protests against (among other things) political corruption, perhaps they should ask themselves if this assumption is shared by those outside parliament.

The 'cash-for-amendments' scandal shows why the current rules do not suffice. Assuming that politicians will act in the general interest is not enough. It is important that the principle that elected representatives should not act in the interests of anyone that would compromise their voting freedom, and should not accept any financial benefits for wielding their political influence, are spelt out.

Strong ethics regulation is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy. If as a elected representative, the idea of representing voters, not special interests, sounds offensive, then perhaps a career as for-profit lobbyist may be more obvious.

President Buzek has proven to be a supporter of a robust code of conduct; it is to be strongly hoped that no more members of his European People's Party join the handful of Italian MEPs who have tabled these damaging amendments. If he manages to keep them in line, he could safeguard his legacy as a corruption fighter.

A more subtle argument has been put forward by two British MEPs, the conservative Charles Tannock and liberal democrat Andrew Duff. Tannock wants to reduce the requirement for MEPs to declare shareholdings so that only holdings with a value higher than the yearly MEP salary should be declared. Bearing in mind that an MEP earns a base salary of €84, 000 per year, this would mean that substantial financial interests remain hidden. Tannock recently updated his own declaration of interests regarding his shareholding in an oil and gas exploration company.

Of course, no value was mentioned. In other amendments Tannock and Duff are trying to remove hospitality (hotel stays etc.) from the definition of gifts, which, the new code states, should not be worth more than €150. The MEPs claim that this rule would hinder them from taking part in events that as public representatives, they should frequent. It is precisely because of this wining and dining – an important trick in the lobbyist trade – that citizens feel that something isn't right.

For MEPs voting next Wednesday, they should consider whether they wish the Brussels bubble to remain a remote and distant place for most citizens, a place where the pickings seem rich, or whether it can become a beacon of ethics to which people willingly entrust power.