NGOs condemn MEP’s side activities in complaint on conflict-of-interest risk

Corporate Europe Observatory, Transparency International EU, Friends of the Earth Europe and LobbyControl have today written to European Parliament President Roberta Metsola to raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest regarding Member of the European Parliament Axel Voss. Mr Voss, whose parliamentary activity is specifically focused on matters related to data protection and artificial intelligence, performs two paid side jobs for firms with an appreciable interest in Mr Voss’s field of political work.

According to his declaration of financial interests, Mr Voss earns up to €6000 a month for activities outside his political mandate: he is a freelancer at the law firm Bietmann Rechtsanwälte Steuerberater, working on data protection law, as well as a member of the data protection advisory board at German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom.

These outside financial interests overlap blatantly with Mr Voss’s political work. He is the rapporteur for the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) Opinion on the Artificial Intelligence Act, as well as a Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee shadow rapporteur on the same proposal. His JURI Opinion makes additional references to data protection and proposes the President of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, of which Deutsche Telekom is a member, as a “permanent observer” to the proposed European Artificial Intelligence Board. Mr Voss was also previously the rapporteur on a European Parliament report on “Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age”, for he apparently held two meetings with Deutsche Telekom, as well as with other industry lobby groups of which Deutsche Telekom is a member. The meetings with Deutsche Telekom have since disappeared from his online declaration.

Mr Voss further held a meeting with a PR firm affiliated with Bietmann Rechtsanwälte Steuerberater in his work as shadow rapporteur on the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.

The above raises critical questions concerning the influence of Mr Voss’s (substantially) paid side activities on his work on pivotal EU legislation. Citizens must have total confidence that legislation that affects them is being made in the public interest. Mr Voss’s potential conflicts of interest show that such reassurance cannot be granted by European policymakers.

Yet again, this has exposed the European Parliament’s lax approach to transparency and accountable policymaking. There is no limit on the number of paid side activities an MEP can perform, and MEPs are not required to provide precise details on how much they earn, specific information about the topics they work on, or their clients. Vetting of these activities is non-existent.

The Parliament should now finally show a true commitment to safeguarding political integrity by stamping out both potential and actual conflicts of interest—through banning problematic side jobs. An MEP’s sole focus should be their democratic electoral mandate, not outside interests.

We approached Mr Voss regarding the concerns set out above, but he did not respond.

Shari Hinds of Transparency International EU said: “Today’s revelations are yet more evidence that such side activities should be banned. Members should be unimpeachable; these kinds of side jobs put a question mark on who MEPs are representing: are they working on behalf of EU citizens, or their clients? It is imperative that the Code of Conduct for Members be reformed to address these critical situations. Yet the reforms are being discussed behind closed doors. MEPs must demonstrate that they are taking integrity seriously and discuss Code of Conduct reforms publicly.”

Vicky Cann of Corporate Europe Observatory said: “Six months on from Qatargate, the public expects that conflict of interest risks such as those of Mr Voss are urgently investigated. This is our second complaint about the risk of conflicts of interest of an active MEP in the last few months. President Metsola must act, and be seen to act. And MEPs must get their house in order by agreeing a far more robust Code of Conduct which bans these kinds of side jobs.”

Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe said: "The integrity of an MEP should never be up for grabs. This should automatically imply that they refuse any form of work or remuneration from companies or organisations with a vested interest in their decision-making roles. In light of Qatargate, we urge EP President Metsola to end these types of conflicts of interest in the European Parliament by banning such side hustles."

Verena Leyendecker of LobbyControl said: “For many years, anti-corruption NGOs have been complaining to the President’s office about MEPs with problematic side jobs – but we have yet to see any consequences or changes made. This shows that not only the rules, but also the system of control and enforcement, lacks teeth.”

The complaint is available here.

Stop press! 15 January 2024

After a lack of response from the European Parliament authorities, the European Ombudsman has now asked the Parliament to respond to this complaint (and one concerning MEP Niebler) by the end of February 2024.

Stop press! 21 March 2024

Following the intervention of the Ombudsman, the office of President Metsola of the European Parliament wrote to the NGOs but has maintained its refusal to provide any meaningful response to the complaints that had been submitted, including refusing to confirm whether or not they had been referred to the ethics committee and the outcome of any investigations undertaken. 

On 20 March the Ombudsman wrote to President Metsola. As the Parliament has changed the ethics rules since our original complaints (following the Qatargate scandal) the Ombudsman will not take further action. But she says the following: 

"... I note the improvements in the Parliament’s framework, in particular, that citizens can now bring what are described as ‘signals’ to the Advisory Committee directly. I note that you say that this new arrangement is now fully in force and at the disposal of citizens. I have frequently stressed the importance of the reinforced Advisory Committee for the proper functioning of the Parliament’s Code of Conduct.
I also note, however, that there is no guidance available to the public on how to direct such ‘signals’ to the Advisory Committee. In order for this right to be effective and concretely in force, this information should be published in a clearly visible place on the Parliament’s website. Citizens should also know how their complaint/signal will be dealt with, and how, and if, the outcome will be communicated to them.
I trust that the Parliament will reflect further on how to ensure adequate transparency around this new and welcome initiative. In the event of a request for
information about the conduct and integrity of MEPs, the Parliament should rigorously assess the balance as between certain legitimate interests of MEPs and a public interest such as, for example, the need for citizens to be assured of the impartiality of EU decisionmakers.
I am confident that such an approach would allow for the right balance to be struck between transparency, data protection and the confidentiality of any investigations."

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