EU Ombudsman puts Commission's corporate-dominated Expert Groups back under the spotlight with fresh investigation
For the first time, the damaging influence of big business lobbying has been a prominent election topic across Europe, and nowhere is this role more evident than in the European Commission's influential advisory groups, instrumental in shaping new laws and legislation, from banking to climate change to food safety. Unfortunately those in charge at the Commission are now trying to get away with ignoring the problem, which is why the recent investigation into the groups announced by the European Ombudsman is such good news. This could provide the impetus to both newly-elected MEPs and civil society groups to ensure that when the Commission comes to review the overarching rules for its advisory groups next year, it is the public interest rather than corporate interests that are at the heart of EU decision making.
Overhauling Expert Groups in need of new impetus
Trying to clean up the Commission's advisory groups – formally known as 'Expert Groups' – is nothing new. The European Parliament has been attempting to for years, as have civil society groups, including many members of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU). In November 2011 Parliamentarians were so exasperated by the Commission's lack of progress that they froze the Expert Groups budget. The European Parliament demanded that its four conditions were formalised before the budget freeze was lifted: no corporate domination of Groups; no lobbyist sitting in Groups in a 'personal capacity' (i.e. pretending to be independent); public calls for application for all new Groups; and full transparency.
However, it was only when the money started looking like it would run out, in March 2012, that the Commission undertook a full review of all its Expert Groups. The budget freeze was lifted September 2012 under the proviso that the conditions would be treated as de facto rules as the official review of the horizontal rules (those that apply to all Groups and all departments aka DGs) wasn't until 2015. An informal process between the Parliament and the Commission was launched to oversee the implementation, with the Parliament threatening to re-freeze the budget if progress wasn't made.
A report produced by ALTER-EU with the support of Arbeiterkammer and ÖGB in November, A Year of Broken Promises shows that many Expert Groups created since the budget freeze was lifted have in fact not complied with conditions, particularly in certain economic and politically important Commission departments, like Taxation and Customs Union or the Secretariat General itself. Corporate interests continue to dominate and their lobbyists are still pretending to be in groups in a personal capacity rather representing, for example, KPMG or Shell. The intervening year since the budget was lifted has been one of broken promises, which is why the investigation from the Ombudsman is so necessary.
Public stakeholder consultation to get the full picture
On 14 May 2014, European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly announced that she would be launching her own investigation into Expert Groups to achieve “a more balanced composition.” The focus of the investigation looks at the how the four conditions have been applied since the budget freeze was lifted, and aims to bring stakeholders into the process as much as possible. A public consultation has been launched, ending on 31st August, and all stakeholders interested in the fate of Expert Groups have been asked to answer questions relating to the four conditions of balance, lobbyists in a personal capacity, open calls for applications and transparency.
The consultation not only tries to understand the problem but is also heavily focused on solutions and suggestions stakeholders have to offer, showing the commitment to really fixing these imbalanced Groups. There has already been widespread interest from civil society stakeholders in taking part and the consultation should provide a solid base of evidence from which to examine how the Commission has behaved and how we can reform Expert Groups.
DG AGRI also in for a severe examination
Encouragingly, the Ombudsman has also launched an own-initiative inquiry into the ongoing reform of Expert Groups in DG Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DG AGRI), which are supposed to reflect the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The original signs for the new Groups were positive, with a commitment to balance – very important given how dominated the original groups had been by agribusiness representatives. Unfortunately aggressive industry lobbying and a Commissioner's political ambitions threatened to maintain the industry-preferred status-quo. Luckily the Ombudsman is keen to ensure this does not happen. In a letter to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, O'Reilly not only states that it is “imperative” for her to “monitor the selection process with the utmost care” and carefully “review the outcome of the selection”, she also warns the Commission that if it does not meet the requirement of a balanced composition she will over-rule it and reform the groups:
“Therefore, in the interests of good administration, I would invite the Commission to consider informing selected members that their appointment may be reviewed in light of the Ombudsman's future findings as to whether the appointment is in conformity with the requirement of ensuring a balanced representation of all expressed interests referred to in Article 4(2) of the Commission Decision”
Tackling the root causes during the next Parliament
These two investigations are further proof of the Ombudsman's commitment to tackle what she herself calls 'systemic issues', those that fundamentally prevent the running of the European Commission as a public interest body. Other efforts have seen a strong stance taken on a mandatory transparency register, closing the revolving door and public access to documents. All of these issues have been highlighted by ALTER-EU in its election pledge campaign, www.politicsforpeople.eu, in which over 1,250 MEP candidates have pledged to stand up for citizens and democracy against the excessive lobbying influence of banks and big business. Once elected, candidates are asked to tackle key corporate lobbying issues, one of them being Expert Groups. This inquiry highlights the existence of a systemic problem and should be of high interest to incoming MEPs.
Action from the new Parliament on the issue is particularly necessary as the Commission appears to be standing still – or even moving backwards – on the issue, claiming it has done all that is required of it. Ironically, the recalcitrance in overhauling its Expert Groups is rooted in the findings of a previous investigation following an ALTER-EU complaint to the last Ombudsman, begun over four years ago. The final report in December 2013 recognised Commission progress but also announced that this investigation would be launched. Either the Commission didn't realise this meant the problem still existed, or refused to accept it. Either way, it has moved even further away from tackling the problem, and is now denying an agreement was ever made with the Parliament in September 2012. This should ring serious alarm bells for the new Parliament, who face a decision this autumn over discharging the Group budgets, as well as the review of horizontal rule changes in 2015. The evidence provided to the Ombudsman as well as the final report should provide ample evidence.
Time for civil society to step up
If civil society groups in Brussels and beyond are serious about ensuring European Union legislation is made in the interest of the public, rather than shaped by corporate interests to suit their own needs, then the overhaul of Expert Groups – so influential at the beginning of the law-making process – must be a priority for their work over the new Parliamentary term. For the Ombudsman's consultation to be a success and provide the ammunition to change the horizontal rules in 2015, as many under-represented stakeholders need to submit evidence as possible.
ALTER-EU will be making their own submission but are also willing to help other organisations who want to make their voice heard but have not engaged in the process before. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org