MEPs take care of business
Anyone thinking of voting Tory in European elections should read a report that outlines MEPs' big business connections
The Guardian, Wednesday 27 May 2009 15.00 BST
Sure, I understand why people struggling to pay mortgages are outraged by MPs making ludicrous expense claims for their second homes. Yet the abuse of power involved in this scandal (or crisis, as some newspapers now describe it) is almost trivial when compared to what members of the European parliament can get away with.
The absence of tough and enforceable rules designed to avoid conflicts of interest in Brussels has enabled some MEPs to become embroiled with the private sector in a way that appears to undermine their objectivity as public representatives.
Anyone thinking of voting Conservative in order to give the Labour party a much deserved thrashing in the European election would be well advised to read a 2008 report on the business activities of MEPs by the organisation Spinwatch. Of the 12 MEPs from several different countries used to illustrate the problem, five were Tories. All five have been involved in activities that contradict David Cameron's claim that his party is the one most passionate about the environment.
Malcolm Harbour from the West Midlands and Martin Callanan from Newcastle have both worked tenaciously to weaken proposals aimed at reducing pollution from cars, either while working as an adviser to the car industry (as Harbour did until 2005) or benefiting (in the case of Callanan) from a generous discount on a new vehicle.
Their enthusiasm for four-wheeled monsters is shared by Caroline Jackson; for several years since being elected to the parliament in 1984, she combined her membership of its environment committee with a directorate of Peugeot. The fact that the environment committee also deals with consumer and food safety issues hasn't deterred her from working as a paid adviser with Mars; nor has she seen any problem in taking a lead role in fashioning new EU rules on waste while being on the payroll for the waste company Shanks.
Like her, John Purvis is not seeking re-election. The Scotsman is doubtlessly content with his long track record of defending industries he was connected to, including nuclear power and biotechnology. In 2003 he enjoyed considerable success in persuading colleagues not to use the fight against money-laundering as a pretext for imposing tough regulations on hedge funds. At the time, he was a chairman of a hedge fund himself.
Much to Cameron's chagrin, Giles Chichester had to step down as the Tories' leader in the European parliament last year when he had the rotten luck of being caught breaking the rules on expenses. Voters in his constituency (South West England) might like to recall that controversy as he seeks their support for re-election in June. The aforementioned Spinwatch report may give them further cause for concern: it details how he has toured the power stations of Europe, courtesy of nuclear and oil firms.
One common practice in Brussels is that lobbyists suggest amendments to proposed laws and MEPs cut, paste and table them as if they were their own. Chichester has admitted doing so on behalf of his chums in the nuclear industry, yet he has not yet been quite as brazen as his erstwhile centre-right colleague from Finland, Pia-Noora Kauppi. Her diligent copying of amendments touted by the banking sector – exposed by the Wall Street Journal – was followed by her appointment as managing director with the Federation of Finnish Financial Services.
Nerds (like me) who spend more time than is healthy observing the EU's activities will have plenty of fun in the months ahead observing what jobs outgoing MEPs and unsuccessful candidates are offered. Because the parliament has no cooling-off period, there is nothing to stop its departing members immediately selling the expertise and contacts they have amassed to the highest bidder. Pat Cox, the parliament's former president, has evidently had no trouble, for example, finding work lobbying his old friends in the EU institutions on pharmaceutical and environmental legislation, as well as writing opinion pieces on related matters.
A 2007 report by the European Institute of Public Administration indicated that the parliament is the least regulated of all EU institutions. Although MEPs are asked to declare any outside interests so that they can be published on the internet, the rules are "much more general" than those applying to members of the European commission, the study found.
Rectifying this situation would not be difficult. With the public outcry over expenses in Britain and mistrust of politicians widespread throughout Europe, many MEPs would no doubt be in favour of greater transparency. A good grilling from their constituents on issues of accountability would mean that the surrounding issues can no longer be ignored.
Corporate Europe Observatory, a group that monitors how policymakers are in thrall to big business, has launched an excellent campaign called "Pin down your candidate now!" Taking the action it recommends will help pressurise MEPs into improving a wretched system that serves the interests of the super-rich and treats the rest of us with contempt.
MEPs take care of business
MEPs take care of business