It is no secret that corporate and banking lobbyists exercise great influence in European institutions. Nor does the EU distinguish itself by excessive transparency or suitable direct-democratic instruments. This makes the continuing steps towards clean lobbying, greater transparency and an improved European Citizens' Initiative even more important.
EU Commission President Juncker had planned a long requested review of the code of conduct for EU Commissioners. Subsequent to his State of the Union Address last week the time had come: The document published by the Commission contains a number of new regulations, which Juncker had hinted at in his State of the Union Address. These include for example an extension of the so-called cooling-off phases for former Commission members (from 18 to 24 months; 36 months for the Commission President). During the cooling-off phase, the current Commission has to be informed about the acceptance of a new position of the former Member and decide whether the new position conforms to the rules of the code of conduct. Apart from that, restrictions in the area of lobby work apply to avoid striking conflicts of interest, for example as those in the case of the former Commission President Barroso. Further points of the new code of conduct include a strengthening of the three-member Ethical Committee, which monitors the adherence to the code of conduct, as well as an expansion of the disclosure requirement concerning the financial interests of Commissioners.
Much more ambitious than the plans of the President is the Report on Transparency, Accountability and Integrity in the EU Institutions by the European Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO). Last week, the competent Rapporteur Sven Giegold (Greens) presented the report before the plenum, which was accepted by a majority. The issue of the code of conduct for EU Commissioners will be reviewed in more detail. The mentioned cooling-off phases shall be increased to three years and the Ethical Committee shall not only be strengthened but also include members who are independent of the Commission. Apart from that, the report demands an end of privileged access for lobbyists to information or influence mechanisms. Documents on negotiations and rounds of talk shall be accessible for the entire public and informal talks (e.g. in form of informal trialogues) have to made transparent – all demands made by the AK for years. Furthermore, the report insists on the right of the European public to know who has influenced the drawing up of legal provisions. Any influence shall be recorded and made visible to enable an insight into a so-called legislative footprint. In doing so, the transparency during decision-making could be improved and made comprehensible. The report also underlines the importance of transparency concerning current and future negotiations of free trade agreements to strengthen the trust in any agreements. However, a single drop of bitterness must be the rejection of a cooling-off phase for former MEPs, which would have prohibited the acceptance of lobbying activities whilst at the same time receiving temporary allowances. A majority of Conservatives and Liberals opposed this point.
European Citizens’ Initiative: taking a chance for more democracy!
In order to strengthen the influence of the European public on the legislative process in the EU, the Treaty of Lisbon initiated the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). However, according to a report by the Commission, this mechanism is only suboptimal. This is also apparent, when one looks at the example of the Citizens’ Initiative 'Stop TTIP’. Initially rejected by the Commission, the ECJ declared this initiative admissible in May 2017. Hence, a public consultation to improve the ECI was held from May to August 2017. From the AK’s point of view, this review is regarded as positive; however, we call for a general expansion of democracy at EU level.
Last week, the European Commission, under consideration of the results of the consultation, published a new regulation on the ECI. The review of the system includes an expansion of infrastructure and accessibility as well as expanding the examination period of submitted initiatives. The Commission Proposal provides for closer cooperation with organisers and for making available a free online collection system for collecting data. Apart from that, the minimum age for supporting an initiative shall be reduced from 18 to 16 and the organisers shall be able to determine the twelve-months period for collection declarations of support themselves.