Despite some success, there is a long way to go for the European Parliament to truly stand-up for citizens and democracy against the excessive lobbying influence of banks and big business.
The 2014 Politics for People pledge for MEP candidates says, “I will stand-up for citizens and democracy against the excessive lobbying influence of banks and big business.” Coordinated by ALTER-EU, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation, the group mobilised over 25,000 EU citizens to urge their 2014 MEP candidates to sign the pledge; by election day 1350 had done so, of which 180 went on to be elected to the European Parliament.
Our pledge tapped into the concern felt by many that big corporations and banks were using their spending power and privileged access to influence EU laws and regulations in their interests, with ordinary people losing out. The big banks avoided effective regulation despite causing the economic crisis which led to austerity and hardship for many, climate policies were downgraded, and EU trade deals, such as TTIP and CETA, consistently put profits before people.
The campaign targeted the Parliament because overall, it has generally done a better job – especially when compared to the record of the Commission or member states in the Council – of protecting social and environmental interests, and rejecting the most extreme demands of corporate lobbyists in the legislation it scrutinises.
Transparency ball in the Parliament court
Our pledge was aimed at MEPs in the Parliament, but transparency campaigners secured an early success when the incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that transparency would be one of his priorities, and followed up with promises of a mandatory lobby transparency register, and new rules to ensure that his team of commissioners would not meet unregistered lobbyists and would publish a list of the lobbyists they met.
Response to ethics scandals
This fundamental problem has been thrown into sharp relief since the 2014 elections. The Commission has blundered into a number of ethics scandals, especially relating to the departure of members of the previous Barroso II Commission, some of whom have gone through the revolving door into well-paid corporate jobs, sometimes in sectors related to their previous portfolios.
Parliament report on transparency
MEP Sven Giegold meanwhile embarked upon a valiant fight to upgrade the transparency and ethics rules across the EU institutions, including the Parliament. While only an own-initiative report (with no legal value per se), Giegold hoped it would act as a springboard to concrete ambitious reform. Giegold's considered process included consultation with civil society; transparency activists were supportive and a joint action by Democracy International, ALTER-EU, and Transparency International led to people from 24 different EU countries sending more than 73,000 emails to MEPs sitting on the constitutional affairs committee. Our priorities included: a ban on problematic second jobs for MEPs, an overhaul of the Parliament’s powerless ethics committee, and a ban on MEPs meeting with unregistered lobbyists.
The Commission, Parliament, and Council will shortly embark upon negotiations to reform the existing EU lobby register, moving towards the Commission’s vision of a so-called mandatory register based on incentivising lobbyists to abide by the rules ie. using carrots to encourage registrations, rather than sanctions which would be possible under a legally-based register. ALTER-EU has found the Commission’s proposal to be too weak and we, alongside 100 other civil society organsiations, have been counting on MEPs to push back and negotiate a far more robust register. But so far the omens have not been encouraging.