Exploring the Insights and Discussions from the European Policy Centre’s “The State of the Ethics Union” Conference

by | Sep 15, 2023

(8 September 2023, European Policy Centre – EPC)

Speakers:

  • Daniel Freund, Member of the European Parliament
  • Emily O´Reilly, European Ombudsman
  • Georg Riekeles, Associate Director, European Policy Centre
  • Matti Van Hecke, Managing Partner, Political Intelligence Brussels
  • Sarah Wheaton, Chief Policy Correspondent, POLITICO Europe

Moderator:

  • Garvan Walshe, Head of Communications, European Policy Centre

Garvan Walshe commenced the event by highlighting the incredible importance of the topic under discussion. The debate revolved around establishing regulations for lobbying and addressing the question of influence within the European Parliament.

Emily O´Reilly began her speech by referencing a report authored by Daniel Freund, which contained several proposals expected to impact the Parliament in the upcoming week. These proposals were believed to significantly alter the rules governing Ethical Conduct. Daniel employed a metaphor, likening the proposals, counterproposals, and failed proposals to throwing spaghetti at the wall.

There are notable improvements proposed for the rules, particularly pertaining to critical areas such as lobbying meetings, declarations of interests, acceptance of gifts, assets, and affiliations. Concerns were raised regarding the blurry line between public representatives and private interest influencers. Recommendations have been put forth for political parliaments and the Commission, all with the goal of enforcing a code of conduct, with an emphasis on allowing committees to be proactive when necessary. However, as the saying goes, “the devil lies in the details”.

On the Commission’s side, meetings with institutions are now being held to establish an institutional ethics body described as a standard-setting committee. This initiative might appear to lack political enthusiasm, but it aligns with the implicit and explicit purposes articulated by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen some years ago. The proposal for an ethics body could, at the very least, compel institutions to reevaluate their ethical regulations and foster trust in one another, prompting them to defend their internal rules or, under pressure, revise them.

From Emily O´Reilly´s perspective, two critical areas of influence have been overlooked in this ethical debate: transparency registration and the issue of revolving doors. The primary concern centers on understanding who influences legislation and how they do so. There have been consistent reports highlighting the disparity between recorded influences and the reality on the ground.

Regarding revolving doors, numerous investigations have revealed a tendency to downplay the impact of this phenomenon on the integrity of democratic decision-making processes. This attitude ignores substantial evidence of the corrosive impact of this soft corruption on democracies and regulatory outcomes. In 2021, the OECD found that at least half of elected or appointed officials would accept well-paying jobs in the private sector in exchange for political favors.

In Emily O´Reilly´s opinion, there is no doubt that in the decades to come, a connection can be drawn between failures in addressing the climate crisis and similar phenomena. How many lobbyists and individuals within formal EU institutions will work to delay necessary climate action? How many lives will be lost as a result? We cannot be complacent.

In conclusion, it is abundantly clear that the lack of measures or measures that aren´t enough will conduct to a lapse in ethical standards with consequences to the democratic system. In this line, we can see that is imperative to take proactive measures that can at least combat potential repercussions.

Waiting for the consequences of a lapse in ethical standards is not a viable option. Instead, we must recognize the imperative need to take immediate and proactive measures to combat the potential repercussions.

After this engaging speech, the panel initiated their discussion. First, Daniel Freund articulated that our approach prioritizes maximizing process, and that´s the reason behind his dedication for many years to explore several options. The objective is to achieve as much progress as possible, with the support of a majority. Consequently, he proposed different levels of transparency and accountability to discern which ones prove effective, likening it to throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

Sarah Wheaton expressed her opinion that there hasn´t been much cultural exchange in the Parliament. In her view, the changes that have occurred were mainly in response to external pressures, rather than being driven by internal political dynamics.

Georg Riekeles highlighted the significance of geopolitical and geoeconomical pressures in emphasizing the importance of transparency within the EU. He lamented that, in practice, no one within EU policy seems to take transparency and ethics seriously. Both the Commission and the Parliament have allowed transparency to erode over time.

Matti Van Hecke remarked that access to individuals within the European Commission is not equal for everyone; some have direct access while others don´t. He advocated for greater transparency and stronger accountability measures.

Emily O´Reilly, the European Ombudsman, noted that the quality of access often depends on influence. People within these institutions might claim they can´t share information, but journalists often find ways to obtain it and subsequently report on it.

Mediator Garvan Walshe inquired if there´s a way to ensure real-time circulation of information. Emily O´Reilly suggested that one solution to enhance transparency is to ‘follow the money’ and questioned why transparency isn´t stronger. She concluded that it´s because some people simply do not want it.

Sara Wheaton argued that to achieve transparency, the process itself needs to be designed effectively. The system should be structured to deliver evidence to the Parliament and be robust enough to function as intended.

Daniel Freund cited the example of Hungarian Funds that have gone missing without a thorough investigation. He emphasized the ongoing fight against corruption as being of paramount importance.

Georg Riekeles pointed out that the Commission and the Parliament often implement minimal sanctions, resulting in little meaningful change. He concurred with Emily O´Reilly´s assessment that people don´t want things to change.

Matti Van Hecke mentioned that while there´s criticism about transparency, the real issue lies in the absence of clear sanctions.

Emilly O´Reilly highlighted three key aspects: independence in their work, transparency of the institutions, and a significant reluctance to change within the Commission and the Parliament.

In response to the mediator´s question about the need for an independent body, Daniel Freund affirmed that such a body is necessary. Either way, as he sees it, of course that the rules may not be perfect, but the main problem lies in the lack of consequences when these rules are violated.

Georg Riekeles expressed his belief that most Commission officers are not susceptible to corruption, but there are systematic issues within the Commission. The main problem is the absence of strengthened sanctions, and this applies to Parliament as well. He argued that even if voters don´t pay close attention, action needs to be taken to address these issues.

To conclude the debate, Matti Van Hecke emphasized that revealing the destination of funds is a fundamental aspect of transparency.


See the recording of the event:

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