Meldung Politik

New ethics rules are a good start but European Parliament must do more to ensure citizen trust

Berlin/Brüssel, 13.05.2024 – A Guest Commentary by European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly

© Europäische Union
European Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly

This text was originally published in a translated form in Scheinwerfer 102 which focuses on the 2024 European elections. / Dieser Text ist ursprünglich in einer übersetzten Fassung im Scheinwerfer 102 zum Schwerpunktthema Europawahl 2024 erschienen.

The choices Europeans make at the ballot box this June will shape how the EU addresses everything from economic policy and the environment to migration and defence. With climate-driven natural disasters increasing in frequency and severity, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continuing unabated, and the spectre of a deteriorating trans-Atlantic relationship looming, the stakes in these upcoming elections are high. The results may also have a serious effect on the state of democracy in Europe—on the commitment to government transparency and accountability, the fostering of a strong ethics culture, and the checks and balances that protect us from abuse of power.

Many factors determine how—and if—people vote in European elections, but one of the most important is trust, not only in the EU itself, but in the willingness of those they elect to work in the public interest. In the European Parliament, the vast majority of MEPs work diligently to represent the interests of their constituents. They may have their disagreements along ideological or policy lines, but their commitment to the public good is clear.

As we saw with “Qatargate” however, a lax ethics culture risks being exploited by a few individuals, whose actions can end up undermining the reputation of the institution as a whole. The scandal involved allegations that non-EU countries tried to buy influence in the institution. There were many pronouncements about overhauling Parliament’s ethics framework in the immediate aftermath of this scandal, as well as strong commitments to preventing something similar from happening ever again. Unfortunately, as the media attention died down, so too did some of the ambition, leading to various proposals and initiatives falling victim to political wrangling.  

Nevertheless, Parliament did ultimately make progress in strengthening its ethics framework. The reform package that it passed late last year included a more detailed definition of conflict of interest and an obligation for MEPs to publish all meetings organised with registered lobbyists and diplomatic representatives from non-EU countries. It also introduced a post-mandate ‘cooling off period’ for MEPs during which they cannot lobby the Parliament.

Significant concerns remain however, in particular around how the new rules are going to be implemented and enforced. For instance, it is not clear how Parliament will ensure that MEPs respect the cooling off period or what sort of sanctions it will apply if they fail to do so. The same applies to the requirement to publish meetings with lobbyists and non-EU diplomats.

The reforms also gave a more proactive role to the Code of Conduct Advisory Committee, including the authorisation for it to receive ‘signals’ concerning alleged wrongdoing by MEPs. While this is a welcome development, it is not certain how the Committee is going to receive and act on these signals in practice.

Finally, it was regrettable that the reform process itself was not sufficiently transparent. Only a limited number of documents were made publically available and most discussions took place behind closed doors. This was particularly the case for decisions adopted by the Bureau of the European Parliament, which lays down rules for the entire institution.

It is important to see the resulting ethics framework as a good starting point rather than a final destination. Strong rules on their own are not enough to guarantee a robust ethical culture worthy of citizens’ trust. Adequate resources, comprehensive implementation, and rigorous enforcement are also crucial pieces of the puzzle. With elections just over the horizon, Parliament should work to put them in place as quickly as possible. As the existing reforms have left the institution’s self-regulation model largely intact, it is now vital to show EU citizens that it can work.