The influence of money on politics is one of the key corruption risks in developed economies. This is true both at national and EU level. Only a comprehensive ethics system, composed of transparency, accountability and integrity mechanisms can ensure that political institutions, processes and policy-makers are effectively protected from undue influence.
At the EU level, despite a number of promising reforms by the Juncker Commission, the full spectrum of EU policy and decision-making remains opaque and unaccountable to citizens. The Council of the EU, for example, has made few concessions to transparency remaining apart from initiatives to improve lobby transparency. It also refuses to open its decision-making process to the public, going against decisions taken by the European Courts and calls by European Ombudsman, national parliaments and civil society organisations. As for the Commission and Parliament, their respective ethics bodies are unable to effectively deal with cases of conflict of interests or effectively tackle revolving door risks between public positions and private interests.
Transparency International EU’s assessment of political corruption risks in the EU institutions has shown that despite a sophisticated regulatory and institutional framework, crucial areas such as safeguards against conflicts of interest and transparency of lobbying leave much to be desired. Addressing these and more fundamental accountability gaps in an effort to make the Union more responsive to direct citizen input will require wide-ranging changes, including the EU’s founding treaties.
Lobbying is a part of any healthy democracy, but Transparency International EU (TI EU) works hard to ensure that such activities are conducted in a transparent and ethical manner at EU level. Brussels is the second capital of the world in terms of lobbying after Washington DC. At least 48,000 individuals work in this European capital in organisations seeking to influence the EU institutions and decisions, with 7,500 of these possessing an accredited lobby badge to the European Parliament. The nearly 12,000 organisations on the current voluntary EU lobby register declare a combined annual lobby budget of 1.8 billion euros.
At EU level, lobbying activities lack comprehensive regulation. The Council, for example, has no system in place to protect itself from unethical lobbying. The Parliament and Commission have a joint voluntary register for lobbyists, which lacks the proper resources to carry out adequate oversight of the registrants. In the last mandate, the European Commission made a proposal to regulate this sector through a mandatory register common to all three EU institutions, a long-term policy ask of TI EU. Unfortunately, despite years of negotiations, the ‘mandatory EU Transparency Register’ is not yet a reality. Following the 2019 European elections, many questioned whether the new Parliament and Commission would continue discussions. At a TI EU event on this issue, the three EU institutions made a public commitment to resume the negotiations in 2020. TI EU continues to follow these developments closely and is actively promoting the adoption of such a mandatory register.
TI EU believes that the democratic decision-making process and institutions need to be protected by a comprehensive integrity system, which ultimately ensures ethical and open input from all interested stakeholders. To this end, the EU institutions must also guarantee equal access by lobbying organisations, allowing them to provide their expertise and input. This would ultimately lead to better decisions and better laws for all European citizens. Additionally, to ensure transparency and accountability, all input by stakeholders into the legislative process should be published in a legislative footprint.
Transparency International EU (TI EU) works hard to ensure that conflicts of interest in the EU decision-making process in all institutions are managed openly and effectively. This means that proper rules must be put in place to ensure that policy-makers do not have any potential or real conflicts of interest between the public office they occupy and any outside activity they might have. Preventing conflicts of interest means that relevant office holders declare their financial interests and assets. These declarations can then be scrutinised and checked by the relevant oversight bodies as well as the public, civil society and the media. If conflicts of interest do occur or if rules are breached, there needs to be independent institutions to investigate and sanction misbehaviour.
The current system for the prevention and resolution of potential or real conflicts of interest at EU level has many areas which need improvement. In the current European Parliament for example, a TI EU analysis of MEPs self-declarations financial interests has shown that current MEPs have declared 1,503 side activities, of which 842 are paid. With imprecise job descriptions being common and a pervasive lack of oversight, the current risk for conflicts of interest in the European parliament is considerable. As for the European Commission, Commissioner candidates should undergo a systematic assessment for potential conflicts of interest that is independent of political considerations.
TI EU advocates for reforms of the European Parliament as well as the European Commission oversight regimes by establishing an independent ethics body with sufficient resources and credible sanctioning mechanisms.
Conflicts of interest can also occur through revolving door cases of Members of Parliament, Commissioners or civil servants taking up new jobs in the private sector. Brussels has seen a number of high-profile revolving door cases in the last years, including ex-Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s move to Goldman Sachs in 2014. The high demand for policy insiders, particularly among lobby organisations, requires strong ethical safeguards against undue influence. The exchange of knowledge, experience, and personnel between the public and private sector can bring very positive results by providing a better understanding of how political decision-making works. However, the revolving door can also undermine trust in the EU, because of the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest. It can reinforce the public perception that links between the EU institutions and big business are too close.
In early 2017, Transparency International EU (TI EU) published a report analysing 512 former EU Commissioners and MEPs and their after-office employment. We found that more than 50% of ex-Commissioners and 30% of ex-MEPs who have left politics were working for organisations on the EU lobby register. Our report showed that companies are employing former officials to gain access, influence and proximity to policy-making. While the Juncker Commission made advances in regulating the revolving door, the rules are still poorly enforced. As for the European Parliament, it still has no post-mandate employment rules for MEPs, creating serious ethical risks to the political integrity of the institution.
TI EU calls for stronger post-employment rules for the Commission and the Parliament. Longer cooling-off periods, tighter restrictions on lobbying of EU institutions, as well as a well-resourced oversight system.
For further details on our work on revolving doors:
– 2017 Report on the revolving door phenomenon
– Recommendations for the reform of the European Parliament Code of Conduct
– Recommendations for the reform of the European Commission Code of Conduct
– Online tool EU Integrity Watch tool tracking post-employment activities of former Commissioners and MEPs
The Council of the European Union is the EU institution that represents the interests of the Member States.
It is not only one of the most powerful institutional actors in the EU legislative process but also the most opaque institution in Brussels, publicly known as a ‘black box’. Council proceedings, therefore, have wider implications of the democratic legitimately of the decision-making process and necessitate a considerably higher degree of transparency and accountability than what is currently in place.
Whereas the European Parliament and the European Commission are already operating with greater transparency and accountability, it remains virtually impossible for citizens to understand how decisions are made in the Council. Finding out whether their national representatives were in favour or against a certain provision is almost impossible and stands in the way of meaningful participatory policy-making and being able to hold governments to account. Despite decisions by the European Court of Justice asking for greater transparency of Council decision-making, as well as calls by National Parliaments and civil society, the Council has been extremely reluctant to commit to any reforms and to implement concrete improvements to increase transparency and accountability.
TI EU calls for the Council to fully commit to best practices in transparency by publishing detailed negotiating positions of Members States, overhauling its access to documents policy, increasing transparency of the legislative process, and opening internal deliberations to the wider-public.
The euro crisis is far from over, and the European Commission has committed to putting forward proposals for the deepening of Economic and Monetary Union. It is crucial to ensure that this goes hand in hand with greater democratic legitimacy on the decisions that affect every euro in our pockets. Previous reforms have merely paid lip-service to transparency and accountability, confining the discussion of the real trade-offs to political haggling behind closed doors, rather than implementation of EU law.
If economic governance rules cannot be implemented, they should be changed. If economic institutions cannot govern in an open and accountable way, they should be reformed. This will remain a priority for the EU in general and the Eurozone in particular, including for Transparency International EU.
For further details on our work on EU economic governance: