NGOs demand Portuguese EU Presidency puts public interest centre stage
The Portuguese Government will take on the Presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 January 2021 for six months. Sixty four civil society organisations have joined Corporate Europe Observatory and Transparência e Integridade, Associação Cívica (Transparency International Portugal) to write to the Portuguese Government to set out a series of demands on tackling corporate influence, and promoting lobby transparency, accountability, and democratic reform.
The letter notes that the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU will commence during a period of unprecedented political, economic, social, and environmental turbulence. The coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll on public health, employment, and the economy; while the gravity of the climate emergency has not yet elicited the deep and urgent action required by the EU. Within the EU the rule of law is under threat in several countries and basic democratic values are being undermined. It is imperative that the Portuguese Presidency prioritises robust and progressive action on all three of these fronts.
Beyond this, the CSOs expect the Presidency to be based on the values of prioritising the public interest over corporate interests, alongside delivering transparency and accountability for parliamentarians and the public, with the following demands:
- The Portuguese Government must ensure that the EU Presidency is not used to champion big business interests over the public interest. With numerous topics on the EU’s upcoming agenda where corporate lobbying can be expected to be heavy and against the public interest (the coronavirus recovery, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, tax, defence spending, pharmaceuticals, and digital to name just a few) the Portuguese Government must ensure that corporate interests do not receive privileged access to its decision-making during the Presidency and beyond. Furthermore the Portuguese Presidency should initiate a debate in the Council about reducing the influence of big business interests on both EU and national policy-making.
- Crucially, during a time of climate crisis when the time available to take effective action is rapidly dwindling, there can be no public interest in lobby interactions with the fossil fuel industry, a sector whose interests are in direct contradiction with the public interest in phasing out fossil fuel use. Following the widely-accepted World Health Organisation guidelines on keeping tobacco industry lobbying to an absolute minimum, the Presidency should commit to keeping all dealings with fossil fuel lobbyists to an absolute minimum. It was shocking to learn that the Portuguese Government’s coronavirus recovery plan was drafted by a representative of the fossil fuel industry. This kind of privileged access must end immediately; it is contrary to the public interest and deeply inappropriate.
- The publication of lobby meetings held by the Portuguese Permanent Representative and Deputy is to be welcomed. However, this practice should be extended to lobby meetings held by other Permanent Representation staff who are likely to be lobbied far more intensively. During its own presidency in 2018, Finnish ministers also published their lobby meetings when they concerned EU matters. This precedent should also be adopted. The public has a right to know who is lobbying and attempting to influence the Portuguese Government, including during the Presidency. To this end we urge the Government to boost its domestic lobby transparency record by urgently implementing the proposed national lobby law.
- Recent Presidencies (with the notable exception of Germany in 2020) have besmirched their reputation by accepting corporate sponsorship for Presidency activities including events, websites, and services. This practice is totally unacceptable and, as the European Ombudsman has remarked, incurs “reputational risks”. It is essential that the Portuguese Presidency rejects all forms of sponsorship for its Presidency and any of its activities, and that it urges fellow EU member states to do likewise in the future.
- The Council remains the least transparent of the EU institutions, notwithstanding efforts at reform in recent times. It is still not possible for citizens to follow, let alone scrutinise, how their member state is negotiating on a particular file or dossier, creating not just a democratic deficit, but an advantage for corporate lobbies with the capacity and resources to be able to overcome the opaque and complex policy-making process. It is disappointing that the Portuguese Government has not joined the 10 other member states which have argued for greater legislative transparency. We urge you lead by example by publishing minutes of trilogues and Council preparatory body meetings which include details of member state positions, and further developing the wider legislative transparency reform agenda.
- Finally, MPs in Portugal do not have strong rights to be able to hold the Government to account for its EU decision-making, nor to scrutinise those positions before they are presented in Brussels. Once again this represents a democratic deficit. It is time for the Portuguese Government to open up its EU decision-making by publishing its proposed positions on new EU laws and policies before they are discussed at Council meetings, to enable scrutiny by citizens and MPs.
Corporate Europe Observatory will be monitoring the Portuguese Presidency, as part of its ongoing Captured states project.
Read the full letter in English.
Read the full letter in Portuguese.
For organisations which have not yet signed the letter but would like to, please sign up here.
Update 20 January 2021: You can read the short reply from the Portuguese Presidency here. It is disappointing that the reply does not address our specific demands.