BRUSSELS, Belgium (ViaNews) – Released today in Brussels, a report showing how in the current EU mandate, Members of Parliament (MEPs) have earned up to 41 million € in outside income. With some MEPs running up to 16 outside activities, many of which are undefined, questions regarding conflicts of interest and ethics risks arise.
Regular lobby meetings, paid speaking, board memberships, and numerous external financial activities by MEPs across all parties are some of the issues raised in a report released today by a global anti-corruption coalition, Transparency International. No sanctions have yet been enforced for the 24 breaches of the Code of Conduct by numerous MEPs, revealing a need for even greater clarity in the corridors of the EU.
Moonlighting & Luxury Trips
At the European Union (EU), the Members of Parliament (MEPs) are moonlighting on the side. “Moonlighting” is the practice of having a second job. Not strictly forbidden, moonlighting is a common practice amongst politicians in democracies. The justification goes that it allows elected officials to stay in contact with their electorate, as well as their profession. After all, no one is an MEP for life.
Shedding light on the issue is Transparency International, whose report “Moonlighting in Brussels” has created valuable statistics, thanks to their online tool EU Integrity Watch.
Over 31% of MEPs are holding side jobs. Many of these are not clearly defined. According to the report, many MEPs’ outside activities are noted simply as “lawyer” or “freelancer” or “entrepreneur”, with no details of clientele or practices. This makes monitoring for conflicts of interest difficult.
The notable case of the untraceable company
The most interesting case is that of French MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, who is declaring 378,000 euros per year for an outside job listed as “Consultant MWD Dubai”. This same company is untraceable online, and there is no information available relating to clients or fields of activity.
The EU requires that each MEP fill out their declarations of financial interest. Currently, the declarations are uploaded electronically. However, the information is neither easily accessible nor centralised. “The European Parliament does not have the competence nor the capacity to check declarations beyond basic plausibility,” states Transparency International.
The top-earning MEP is Renato Soru, Italian MEP and director of Tiscali, the telecommunications company. With over 1.5 million € supplementing his monthly EU MEP salary of 8,484 €, not including allowances, logical questions concerning conflicts of interest and time constraints arise. How can a man run a huge multinational, with significant interests that could conflict with EU initiatives such as the Digital Single Market, fairly represent and give time to his mandate?
“Outside incomes can potentially be used to channel payments to members in return for insider information or legislative action,” says Transparency International.
The same again applies to the second top-grossing MEP. With an annual declaration of 1.4 million €, the Lithuanian professional poker player and entrepreneur Antanas Guoga is representing the European People’s Party (EPP). Running 16 side enterprises, the issue of time constraints amongst MEPs that are moonlighting is clearly highlighted.
Undeclared luxury gifts and trips are also a concern. “Repeatedly, members have been found not to declare activities, gifts over a certain value, or invitations to events. MEPs have for example failed to declare trips paid by foreign government organised under the guise of so-called friendship groups, as well as trips financed by the Azerbaijani government to observe the Presidential elections of 2013” states the report.
Out of the 24 breaches of the Code of Conduct in the past 5 years, 0 MEPs have actually been sanctioned for ethics violations.
“Both Presidents of the current legislature, Martin Schulz and his successor Antonio Tajani, have consistently opted not to sanction violations of the Code, despite the Advisory Committee having substantiated numerous breaches. When revelations are made in the media or through the investigations of watchdog organisations, members are simply invited to submit an updated declaration. This situation, of course, gives little to no incentive to provide accurate declarations in the first place,” it continues.
The Revolving Doors to Lobbying
Next, come the lobbyists.
As it stands, 3 MEPs are currently holding paid-for outside activities with organisations that are registered on the EU lobby register. This is despite an explicit ban on lobbying, for clear reasons of conflict of interest.
Furthermore, despite the option for MEPs to provide a voluntary “legislative footprint”, with a record of any lobby meetings included, very few have opted to share this information with the public.
Transparency International is calling for a mandatory publication of these meetings.
In many international democracies, such as the US & Canada, members of parliament have a mandatory “cooling off” period of 12-24 months before they can accept work with lobby groups. The same does not happen in the EU, with the “revolving doors” moving so fast that 30% of MEPs who have left office are now working for organisations on the EU lobby register.
“These “revolving doors” create a risk of former MEPs using information or contacts gained in office to the benefit of their new employers, potentially providing an unfair advantage over the competition or insider knowledge on how to circumvent rules and push for more favourable regulation,” discloses the report.
A clearer Future?
With so much money, information, and influence circulating, and a lack of clear information on the 1366 total side activities declared by MEPs, Transparency International is calling for the EU to make some changes ahead of the European elections of 2019, to give a fresh start to a new mandate. A strengthening of the ethics system would reduce the risk for scandals, and reinforce trust in public institutions.
Suggestions include the establishment of an independent standing joint ethics body between the European Parliament and other EU institutions. “The body should have the ability to make binding recommendations and impose credible sanctions in cases of ethics violations (conflicts of interests, revolving doors). Such a body should be sufficiently resourced, have the necessary investigative capacity and be able to start investigations itself. It should get access to tax declarations of MEPs, for example, to verify the declarations of financial interest in cases of doubt,” cites Transparency.
Their expert recommendations also include greater enforcement on the ban on lobbying for sitting MEPs. Beginning by following international best practices set by the examples of the US and Canada, such as the prohibition of members from receiving payments for board memberships or speaking engagements, would also greatly aid in creating a more ethical environment in the EU.