31st January 2013. That's the deadline the European Commission gave itself, telling MEPs that by that date, it would act decisively to end the corporate dominance of many of its advisory 'expert groups' within DG Enterprise. The promise was part of a deal made last September with MEPs, who had frozen part of the expert groups budget for almost a year in response to the lack of balance and transparency across the whole Commission. However, a short investigation by ALTER-EU shows the Commission has missed its deadline, and in some cases groups have become even more industry dominated. The Commission was due to meet MEPs next week for an 'informal dialogue' to explain its progress – or lack of – and propose future guidelines. However the meeting has been postponed until March. It's clear that extra vigilance and political will are needed if expert groups are to represent all European interests, not just those of big business.
Expert groups might sound like a technical issue, but research by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) has consistently shown that ‘experts’ within these advisory groups shape legislation and influence European policy, including on issues like labour rights, environmental protection, public health or responding to the financial crisis. Not only are these groups dominated by industry interests, ALTER-EU has shown that in some cases group members have quite literally written the first drafts of legislation which are then passed into law by the Parliament and the Council without major amendments.
A quick spot check of the promises made by the Commission in September shows that it is failing to deliver on most areas: rebalancing industry-dominated groups; stopping lobbyists sitting in expert groups in a personal capacity; always issuing a public call for applications; and full transparency. If MEPs are serious about curtailing the influence of big business in writing our laws, they need to demand concrete steps and a strict timetable from the Commission, as well as adherence to their original conditions, applicable across all Directorate Generals (DGs).
Looking through the online Expert Group register, which all DGs within the Commission are supposed to update, it reveals some very telling information:
DG Enterprise & Industry (DG ENTR) identified 19 imbalanced groups (far fewer than the number identified by ALTER-EU). To fix the problem, it launched a public call for applications for 15 of the groups, closing on 31 October. The deadline for new members to be in place was 31st January 2013. Four groups would also be scrapped as they had fulfilled their mandate.
At the time of writing, no groups have been positively rebalanced. In fact, while some groups have undergone minor membership changes, within the Working Group on Gas Appliances industry representation has more than doubled while the number of non-industry stakeholders has stagnated.
Of the four groups intended to be scrapped, there is no record of their work ending. Two are on hold, one is active (although the register could be out of date), while the other is nowhere to be found, even under the ‘abolished’ section of the register. By contrast, two groups that the Commission made firm commitments to rebalance have instead been scrapped.
Elsewhere in the Commission, groups within DG Agriculture (AGRI) are notoriously imbalanced. Its 30 Advisory Groups (as some DGs call them) contain over 943 ‘experts’, with over 80 per cent (764) coming from large farming organisations or industry players, and only 22 seats going to small-scale farmers, 35 to workers organisations, 38 to consumer groups and 36 to environmental groups. Combined, they count for just over 10 per cent of total membership. However, promises to address this imbalance by 2013 are now being pushed back to 2015, allowing industrial farming interests to continue dominating agricultural policy advice. In DG Taxation and Customs Union (TAXUD), the Trade and Customs Group is 100 cent corporate dominated, while Brussels NGO Transport and Environment has been repeatedly refused membership to the same DG's VAT expert group, despite it being heavily imbalanced in favour of industry interests.
Who’s representing who?
Clarity around representation remains murky, especially as some individuals labelled as academics or independent experts are in fact representing industry interests. Last year, ALTER-EU highlighted such a case within DG Enterprise's Mission Evolution Advisory Group, but rather than take action, another such individual has since been added. Finding out who represents who is made incredibly difficult by the lack of information given in the expert groups register, and more so when industry organisations are sometimes labelled as NGOs and at other times as corporate interests or associations. Full declaration of interests as well as recent financial activity should be available on the website for anyone in an independent role, to make sure they are not linked to private industry interests.
Transparency and a public call for applications
The online register is greatly improved, but there are still enormous discrepancies between the amount of information given by each expert group secretariat and how often it is updated. Of the groups identified as imbalanced by DG Enterprise, over 40 per cent have not been updated in the register since its general call for public applications, while more than 10 per cent remain unchanged in the register since 2011. How is the public supposed to know what is happening if the information is not there? This also stretches beyond the public to include sitting members of the group – how are they supposed to know what is going on without up-to-date information? One member of a DG Enterprise expert group had no idea that a public call for applications was taking place for her group, despite regularly attending its meetings. There’s no point putting a call to rebalance group membership out if no-one knows about it.
Transparency is also needed around the purpose and the mandate of groups. The High Level Group on Group on Administrative Burden, headed by Edmund Stoiber, shows exactly this problem: its newly extended mandate is to represent the interests of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in assessing legislative burden. But Stoiber was exposed by EurActiv as using the group to lobby the then-Public Health Commissioner John Dalli around the upcoming Public Health Directive on behalf of a large Bavarian tobacco company.
Need for rules
If we look at the evidence gathered from these brief spot checks, it shows there is currently little being done by DG Enterprise and others to reduce industry influence within its expert groups – or at least not visible in the public domain – and no consistency of approach. Worryingly, there are many more imbalanced groups beyond those listed, both within DG Enterprise and beyond, as both ALTER-EU and MEPs have pointed out to the Commission. Moreover, new groups are being regularly formed on issues with a clear public interest. See for example the Commission's recent call for expertise to shape priorities within 'Horizon 2020', which will determine where billions of euros in research money is spent. Corporate Europe Observatory has already shown how part of the Horizon 2020 budget has been captured by industry, using scarce public funds to subsidise big business. Therefore if the Commission is serious about tackling the problem it needs to be approached systematically, incorporating strong horizontal rules across all DGs.
Despite setting a deadline for January 2013, the Commission has not delivered on its promise to prevent industry capture of expert groups within DG Enterprise and ensure other stakeholders such as trade unions, NGOs and consumer groups are equally represented. The short investigation presented in this blog is just the tip of the iceberg, and represents a wider struggle for greater transparency and against the marginalisation of public interest actors in favour of big business. MEPs need to ensure that when the informal dialogue with the Commission finally takes place in March, it delivers concrete steps on how to achieve their four conditions for expert groups and what the timetable for achieving that will be.