The European Parliament decided on 19 September, 2012 to lift the block on €2 million (20 per cent) for the Commission's annual budget for its expert groups, the advisory groups set up to assist it in drafting legislation and policies. There are 823 of these groups now in existence.
In a joint statement, the five MEPs leading the Parliament's work on expert groups said that ''the Commission has now signalled its willingness to make concrete and meaningful steps to address Parliament's concerns. In response the European Parliament will today unfreeze the blocked budget.''
In a meeting with MEPs on September 5, the Commission said it would engage with the Parliament in an informal co-drafting procedure for new guidelines that will address concerns over the composition and transparency of expert groups. These guidelines would then be incorprorated in the existing 'horizontal rules'.
The MEPs afterwards stated ''We are expecting a fruitful cooperation with the Commission on these matters. Today is only the beginning of a new relation based on mutual trust. The European Parliament maintains the possibility to freeze the future budgets should this not lead to the foreseen results.''
When the European Parliament imposed the budget reserve in November last year, it asked the Commission to ''modify the rules on expert groups'' regarding four different aspects.
The Commission hasn't fulfilled this condition but the Parliament's decision is a demonstration of good faith in the Commission's verbal promise to work together to change the rules. It is now up to the Commission to finally take serious action to reform expert groups. Otherwise, the budget could be blocked again for 2013.
The Commission's commitment to change remains unclear. Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič refused to co-sign the conclusions of the meeting between the two institutions. He preferred to ''broadly endorse'' them. A phrase that gives him a lot of room for manoeuvre.
Šefčovič has previously indirectly suggested changes in the rules are not needed. ''I confirm the Commission's political commitment to ensuring that all existing provisions concerning expert groups are fully implemented,'' he wrote in an e-mail to the Parliament.
But existing provisions have proven inadequate to deal with concerns:
- They don't include any clear wording to prohibit corporate lobbyists from sitting in expert groups as ''impartial experts in a personal capacity''. The Commission has verbally promised it will end this bad practice a number of times (see for example here this speech in 05:29) but it still refuses to make this promise a reality. And this practice still continues.1
- The existing rules only include a very vague provision regarding the balanced representation of different interests to be ensured ''as far as possible'' (i.e. not always). This leaves the Commission free to maintain a large number of expert groups dominated by corporate interests.2
- The Commission recently promised that ''all relevant members will in future be selected via public calls for application (...) ensuring that the civil society organisations are informed of opportunities''. But this is not included in the rules; therefore the rules should be changed to include ''an obligatory open selection process with a public call and a published mandate of each expert group,'' as demanded by the MEPs.
- The provision in the rules regarding transparency over expert groups' documents is very vague: ‘information concerning the activities (…) is made public’. It needs to be reinforced to explicitly include minutes, agendas and members' contributions. As things stand, none of these documents are actually made public for a significant number of expert groups.
ALTER-EU has proposed detailed changes that would fulfill the Parliament's demands (see the annex of this )
The Commission should begin meetings with MEPs at the earliest opportunity and agree with them on a time schedule for drafting new guidelines addressing these and other issues.
Otherwise, MEPs should consider blocking a larger proportion of the 2013 budget.
In the last few years, some progress has been made in the composition of expert groups. Financial lobbyists no longer make up the majority of non-governement advisers in DG Internal Market's expert groups. This DG has also published it own guidelines for expert groups. DG Enterprise has recently recongnised that the membership of 17 of its groups is problematic and needs radical change. It has published a call to recruit ''non-industry interests such as the interests of consumers, employees or environmental issues'' for 13 expert groups.
But much more needs to be done in order to tackle corporate capture of EU decision making processes through expert groups. DG Enterprise has around 17 other expert groups that are dominated by corporate interests which it is not acting on. There are also still many examples of unbalanced composition in DG Agriculture, DG Climate and other Commission departments.
Only new stricter rules can guarantee a decisive break with the culture of one-sided advice. Without new rules, the progress made so far could easily be reversed in the future.
The improvement in the balanced composition of DG Internal Market's expert groups doesn't necessarily mean that the financial industry has ceased to dominate the thinking of the Commission when it comes to financial regulation. Tens of ad hoc meetings with industry representatives – and not with consumers or unions – are organised by DG Internal Market (see for example on page 280 here a list of workshops with industry on the revision of the Markets on Financial Instruments regulation). Bodies reporting to the European Commission such as the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) continue to rely on advisory groups composed exclusively from industry representatives (see for example the Commodity Derivatives Task Force).
What is needed is not a cosmetic or procedural change. There's no gain in replacing expert groups with other channels which provide corporate interests with privileged access to the Commission.
What the European Union urgently needs is a profound change in attitude and working culture. The Commission has to demonstrate that it is not in the pocket of big business and that it. It does not take decisions only in the interests of a small minority (some call it ''the 1%'') but for society at large.
Current EU policies increase poverty throughout Europe in order to save big banks and protect corporate profits. The Commission should learn to listen to other points of view. It should listen to the millions of employees and consumers, small and medium-sized enterprises, professionals, farmers, cooperatives, and academics. This silenced majority is marginalised in the European Commission's law drafting procedures.
The Commission should demonstrate a clear will to carry out profound reforms in the way it interacts with society. An overhaul of its expert groups is a good place to start.
1Check for instance the ''Mission Evolution Advisory Group'' in the Register http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/regexpert/index.cfm?do=groupDetail.groupDetail&groupID=2661
2This might be the reason why the Commission thinks groups like the following do not lack balance: the ''European Business Organisations Worldwide Network'' composed by 23 corporate lobby groups, the Working Group on Emission from Non Road Mobile Machinery Engines with 35 corporate representatives or the ''FP7 Security Advisoru Group'' with 9 corporations and only 3 academics.