When the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs committee voted on changes to EU lobby register two weeks ago, we were delighted to see how much they appreciated the work of humble transparency NGOs like ourselves. A few pages into the report, you can read the following: “The European Parliament…welcomes and encourages the role played by non-institutional watchdogs in monitoring the transparency of the EU Institutions”.
Noble sentiments indeed and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the members of the committee, or the hundreds of MEPs who will most likely endorse this report when the plenary vote takes place in Strasbourg on April 15.
Sadly, these sentiments are not universally shared within the Parliament, or at least not by those MEPs who are responsible for organising its internal affairs. That is one of the lessons we have learned from our study of EU institutions over the last nine months.
Last summer, Transparency International EU started the research for our study of the EU integrity system, which assesses the transparency, accountability and integrity of ten EU institutions. The study looks at the rules in place, but also how those rules are observed practice, and so we needed to interview those people responsible for enforcing these rules in each institution. We are happy to report that all the institutions responded to our request for cooperation positively, with one striking exception – the European Parliament.
We initially directed our request for interviews to the Secretary General of the Parliament, Klaus Welle, back in July 2013 only to be met with a series of delays, prevarications and long silences. Last December, with time running out and deadlines looming, we took the step of writing directly to the Parliament’s governing body, the Bureau, pleading with them to look again at our request, pointing out that we had had good cooperation with the other institutions, and emphasising that we could be flexible about the timing and scope of the interviews. We even offered the Parliament the opportunity to review our research findings before publication, in view of the short amount of time left.
We finally received a response from the President’s Office in February – a resounding ‘no’. The reasoning behind that refusal is so curious that we consider it worth reprinting in its entirety here.
There are a number of points worth noting in this short letter. Firstly, look at the delay between our first request (as acknowledged in the text) and the date marked on the letterhead – a full seven months. Not a great result for an institution that aspires to be responsive to EU citizens’ concerns. Secondly, and peculiarly, the word integrity is placed in scare quotes, as if the authors of the letter were unsure what this means. Thirdly, the claim that ‘comprehensive information and documentation has been sent to you’ demonstrates the Parliament’s willingness to cooperate is slightly misleading – we received the information following access to documents requests we made through formal channels. Fourthly, it cites a long list of committees and institutions that monitor the Parliament’s affairs, but fails to acknowledge that the same is true of the other EU institutions that did grant our request for interviews. Finally, there is a rather baffling passage which appears to suggest that as the Parliament’s internal bureaucracy is purely at the service of the political arm, that is a good reason why it should not talk to an NGO concerned with transparency and accountability.
Tant pis. We accepted this as the Parliament’s final word on the matter and moved on. There is more to the study than how Parliamentary rapporteurs are appointed after all. What we don’t accept is that this is a full account of the reasons why the Parliament refused to cooperate. This is not merely speculation on our part. Shortly before the Bureau made its decision, we were provided with the preparatory note for the meeting, which is also worth quoting in full:
“The request for cooperation and holding of interviews goes beyond normal administrative proceedings of the Secretariat-General and the study could be considered as an audit of Parliament, comparing it to other institutions (instead of comparing the Parliament with national Parliaments).
The main focus is on Members and the Institutions’ approach to “integrity”. The objective of the study is political in nature and is likely to have a political impact on the Institution, taking into account past studies by TI in relation to Members States and the chosen date of publication just before the European elections.
The Institutions approached by TI have all reacted differently. Documentation sent by Parliament to TI so far does not seem to satisfy TI’s purposes. It should also be pointed out that cooperating with TI should not create a precedent which could be invoked by other NGOs in order to carry out similar exercises. The President has been informed of the matter in November and has decided to put the issue to the Bureau”
Translation: This is not in our job description. We disagree with the approach taken by the study. We are unsure what “integrity” means. They will not just do a study, but will ask us to change our rules and even behaviour. The other institutions have all agreed to cooperate, but with subtle differences in the degree of cooperation. We do not want to be bothered by other NGOs asking questions about how we conduct our affairs.
What can one say about this unfortunate state of affairs? Fortunately, we can say it is not representative of the vast majority of MEPs, assistant and officials we work with on a day-to-day basis, who are happy to be as open as possible in the way they go about their business, often going out of their way to help us. And over the last five years the Parliament has helped to push major anti-corruption and transparency reforms in the oil and gas sector and in anti-money laundering legislation. As an anti-corruption organisation, we talk a lot about ‘tone from the top’ and how that impacts on the values and behaviour of an organisation, making it clear that the rules apply to everyone with no exceptions. In this case, the tone is decidedly off-key. We can only hope that the next Parliament changes its tune.
Transparency International EU Office
The Transparency International EU Office report on the EU Integrity System will be published later this month.