After the intense debate and media attention in the first weeks after the European Parliament's cash-for-amendments scandal broke, it has become very quiet in the last weeks. Discussions about transparency and ethics reforms in the wake of the scandal take place in secrecy in a working group of ten MEPs, led by Parliament President Buzek, in weekly meetings behind closed doors. There are apparently no plans for public hearings or even announcements before the recommendations are completed in the end of June. It's questionable whether this is the right approach: the cash-for-amendment scandal exposed a number of deeper problems in the relations between MEPs and lobbyists that should be cause for soul-searching by the full Parliament. Without a broader debate, I would argue, it is less likely that effective reforms will be endorsed by the Parliament.
Meanwhile, Brussels bubble industry lobbyists, who were very silent in the first weeks after the scandal broke, are now getting more vocal. At a Brussels debate earlier this week, two industry lobbyists commented on the scandal that it had involved only MEPs and journalists (“not a single lobbyist”) and that the journalists had violated professional ethics. This echoes previous statements by lobby consultancy coalitions EPACA and SEAP, who claimed that EU lobbying is highly ethical and that the scandal should not lead to stricter rules for lobbyists. In a remarkable and somewhat absurd 'debate' broadcasted on Romanian TV last week, three Brussels lobby consultants were like clones, repeating each other in declaring the absolute innocence of Brussels industry lobbyists. During this debate, shot in a studio inside the Parliament, Robert Mack (Burson-Marsteller and EPACA) went into overdrive claiming that “ethics is probably the most important part of what we do”. A remarkable claim considering the many examples of unethical lobbying on behalf of industry and government clients which Burson-Marsteller has been involved in over the last decades. Only last week it was revealed that Burson-Marsteller US had run a highly deceptive PR attack on Google, on behalf of Facebook. Jose Lalloum of Logos claimed that EPACA's Code of Conduct is strictly enforced. A look at EPACA's website shows that there has not been a single investigation since 2006 (when an NGO and an MEP submitted complaints that were rejected by EPACA). Clearly this form of self-regulation is not a proof of absence of unethical behaviour.
Was the sting operation by the Sunday Times journalists unethical? Such claims are categorically wrong. The investigation by the Insight team was an excellent example of investigative journalism uncovering power abuses that were already going on outside of public scrutiny. Austrian MEP Strasser, to mention one example, was already covertly working for five other industry clients before the Sunday Times caught him on tape and exposed this scandalous behaviour. Journalist ethics codes endorse these types of investigations when done in the public interest and to uncover evidence that cannot be obtained otherwise. The journalists have done the European Parliament and EU citizens a great service and should be congratulated. Strasser's example also shows that there were actually lobbyists involved in the cash-for-amendments scandal. Strasser himself was operating as a lobbyist for several consultancies working for large corporate clients. And beyond Strasser's double roles, the scandal exposed a wider problem of at least a number of MEPs being far too close to industry lobbyists, relationships that can lead to corruption, but also other forms of undue influence.
Despite the flawed nature of the spin which corporate lobbyists attempt to put on the cash-for-amendments scandal, there is reason to fear that they might succeed in undermining the momentum for long overdue transparency and ethics reforms. This would be tragic as it would leave the Parliament unprotected against further scandals shaking its credibility. It is worth mentioning that the Austrian government takes the scandal very serious and is preparing a new law on lobbying (dubbed Lex Strasser) which foresees fines of up to 60,000 euros for non-registration and rule-breaking by lobbyists.
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