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.

European Parliament Strasbourg

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.

Carl Dolan
Transparency International EU Office

The Transparency International EU Office report on the EU Integrity System will be published later this month.


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  4. To be fair to them, the timing of the request and the intended publication is likely to have run into the very sensitive antennae of the Parliament for anything that might be said to influence the result of the upcoming elections. As you note, they’re hardly a body dedicated to opacity usually.

    “Too political and too close to EU elections” doesn’t seem an entirely unreasonable concern to me. Transparency is something I would be entirely behind, but democracy is also vital. If TI doesn’t aim to influence the Parliamentary elections, then this report will do as well after the elections as before – if the aim is to influence the elections, I’m not sure that Parliament should collude in what is effectively political campaigning by TI.

    • As a politically non-partisan civil society organisation, we emphatically reject the notion that this report represents political campaigning or an attempt to influence the outcome of the European elections, if that is understood as influencing who does or does not get elected. One of the reasons why we chose to publish the report ahead of the elections is that this will be the time when the debate about the future of the EU and its institutions will be most vigorous, and we want that to be an informed debate for both candidates and public. Furthermore, the timing of the report was not an issue for the other nine institutions that cooperated with us, even those such as the European Commission who also have sensitive political antennae.

    • That logic doesn’t really hold up.

      How is TI “too political”? It’s not like they are singling out any special parties for this, the focus is the institution as a whole.

      And the upcoming Parliamentary elections are even more of an reason for such an “audit”. Soon voters will have their, only, chance to change anything.

      How are voters supposed to make any educated voting decisions, without anybody actually taking a “look” at the actual “performance” of the institutions and the people responsible?

      The only “political decision” i see here is that of certain people not wanting this report released prior to elections, only after them. But after the elections it will be too late to actually act on any of the results presented in said report.

      If anything that’s way “too political” for my taste..

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  6. Not a single comment on this? That’s kind of scary..

    This is an really interesting report, especially considering the two names being mainly involved: Klaus Welle, to whom the request had been originally directed and Markus Schulz, who wrote the actual response.

    Klaus Welle used to be the Secretary General of the European People’s party, thus he’s basically representing the oldest and biggest centre-right political group in the European Parliament.

    Markus Schulz is the leader of the Progresive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, representing pretty much the oldest and only real opposition to Klaus Welle’s EPP Group in the European Parliament.

    469 seats in the European Parliament, out of the 766 total, belong tho these two groups they are pretty much a majority in the parliament but politically they are supposedly opposed to each other.

    Yet, they seem to have no issue in cooperating with each other when being inquired about their so called “integrity” (in this case the scare quotes are appropriate in this case). It’s kind of funny and sad at the same time..

    If one looks all over the world most “democracies” by now boil down to having a choice between two majority choices. And in case any of these “majority choices” fails to gather an actual majority, they just build coalitions among each other to stay in power and keep on ruling.

    I wonder if that very same “sickness of the system” has manifested itself in the European Parliament, one certainly could think so looking at the current allocation of seats and the behavior when inquired about their integrity.

    If anything about this situation ought to change people gotta stop voting these established majority parties into power, they are only representing “the same old crap” that has always been ruling in some way or another.

    In the upcoming European Parliament election DO NOT vote for one of the majority parties! Vote SMALL, vote special interest parties, do not give these established parties the “Keep on going like this” excuse by giving them your vote once again.

    That’s the only pressure these “politicians” will understand and as “we the people” it’s our only opportunity to actually influence and change anything at all!

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