Greater transparency from our representatives

Trust in our elected representatives is lower than ever. I can’t say I’m surprised. We hear of many scandals, rumours of backroom deals and accusations, so what are we supposed to believe?

In this article I will explain:

  1. Why our elected representatives should be more transparent.
  2. How our MEPs lie when they say they cannot be transparent.
  3. How you can get a better class of representative.

I

Elected officials are there for the greater good of society. Some have good intentions in mind. Some get into politics because they plan to feather their nest. These sort of representatives aren’t the good sort.

It’s not easy to tell the difference between the two.

When representatives hide details – about anything – it is natural to suspect they’re up to something. There might be a simple explanation for their secrecy. But we won’t be able to tell if the simple explanation is correct or if they’re hiding something else.

This is the dilemma we face – how do we tell if our representatives are good or bad?

At European level there is a lobbying register to help make decisions more open and transparent. The European Commission is the equivalent of our civil service and it has already started using this register. It proposed the same guidelines to the European Council and the European Parliament.

The Council is the equivalent of our cabinet office. These are the heads of the 28, sorry 27, countries that make up the Union. It is adamant it doesn’t want these transparency rules. It argues that as elected heads of government, they shouldn’t follow rules created by someone else.

You’d think they would welcome the opportunity to show they’re clean and all is above-board.

The European Council – Brussels, Belgium

The Parliament is the equivalent of our national Parliament. It, too, is adamant it doesn’t want these transparency rules. It argues that as elected representatives of the people, they shouldn’t follow rules created by someone else.

You’d think they’d welcome the opportunity to show they’re clean and all is above-board.

I’m making it sound like a major issue but how problematic is the situation?

II

The Council and the Parliament are the two entities who veto or approve new European legislation. This makes their voice powerful enough to be important.

Imagine if a new directive on car emissions was going to come into force. The car manufacturers know they can lobby the Commission when the idea is still a proposal. Since the Commission is transparent, they list lobbying in the register. This lobbying could backfire on industry.

Instead, they wait.

Once the directive is being discussed in Parliament, the car manufacturers can lobby the right MEPs. No record of this lobbying exists. MEPs can introduce amendments to the directive to, for example, water the proposals down. Or they can delay the implementation of certain measures.

We cannot tell if they’re acting in our best interest or if they’re acting in the manufacturers’ interest.

Telling us we shouldn’t track them is arrogant.

As taxpayers we should know who they’re speaking to, shouldn’t we? After all when all the Maltese MEPs claim they never met any lobbyists we can either believe them, or wonder if they’re hiding anything.

So is this enough?

III

This would be a great start, but it is not enough.

Imagine this situation:

In the above example, what if the car manufacturers don’t lobby our MEPs in an obvious way.

Instead they invite some MEPs on an all-expenses paid trip. They can invent an excuse like, “We want to show you the latest R&D initiatives driving Europe’s future growth.” That’s the sort of statement that sounds like it is a good reason to travel.

MEPs shouldn’t accept that. Without them realising, they’re becoming closer to the car manufacturers. All that needs to happen now is for the CEO of a big firm to sidle up to the MEPs over (many) drinks and suggest that the R&D could happen in their constituency if the directive changes.

This shows why we also need to know what our MEPs are spending their money on. Or what hospitality they accept.

Unless we can tell what our MEPs are up to, and how they’re spending money, we cannot tell if they’re up to no good.

So what’s the solution?

IV

The various topics being lobbied (Image from Transparency International)

The solution is simple:

  1. MEPs should declare any meetings with outside groups or interests. Whether they are working on topics related to the group they’re meeting or not is irrelevant. The list should always be available so we can tally MEPs’ voting habits with who they’ve met. I’d want to see minutes of those meetings too, but confidentiality means this is a tricky point.
  2. MEPs should declare anything they receive, in cash or in kind, while they’re in office. It’s reasonable to set a lower limit on this; for instance, if someone received a gift costing less than EUR 50.00 I don’t think it’s worth publishing that information. Of course, if the same person or entity gave many gifts less than EUR 50.00, it is worth noting.

References

  1. 17 Black scandal has implications on Caruana Galizia murder investigation; The Times of Malta; 2018-11-12
  2. Malta losing tens of millions from ‘poor’ $1 billion Azerbaijan energy deal; Jacob Borg; Times of Malta; 2018-04-25
  3. POLITICO Brussels Playbook, presented by The Boeing Company: The memes are safe — Don’t mention migration — Freudian tweets; Florian Eder; Politico.EU; 2019-02-14

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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