Ensuring the integrity and exemplary behaviour of public officials is one of the major challenges facing the European Parliament, and a key vector for reinforcing the trust that citizens place in us.
Last year, this trust was damaged by the revelations of corruption within our parliament which, consequently, have brought the debate about the creation of an independent European ethics body back into the spotlight.
The Renew Group and the European Parliament have been advocating for such a body for several years. The French delegation of Renew Europe proposed this idea in France during the 2019 European election campaign, and it was then included as one of the political guidelines of the European Commission.
In September 2021, the European Parliament called for the creation of a strong, independent body: a structure able to deal more effectively with conflicts of interest and ethical rules, one that monitors ethical standards (for example, by being able to verify the veracity of declarations of private interest), and that, last but not least, is equipped with powers to investigate and recommend sanctions
Alongside this, such a body should be able to give advice to commissioners, Members of the European Parliament, and staff of the EU institutions regarding the interpretation and implementation of ethical rules.
The European Commission’s proposal, tabled in June 2023, has been a long time coming. Unfortunately, it falls far short of the ambitions established by the European Parliament. The Commission proposes that the European institutions should remain their own judges, whereas we want to externalise the control of our institutions. The independence of this body is key. It would be completely incomprehensible if the institutions stay self-regulating.
Furthermore, without powers of investigation, verification or the possibility of recommending sanctions, the ethics body as put forward by the Commission would have no way of ensuring that the rules are properly applied.
Without greater ambition, we cannot hope to restore the trust of European citizens in our institutions. To do so, we must recognise that our current system has shown its limitations.
Ethical standards do exist within the institutions. The European Parliament has recently strengthened its own rules of procedure with tighter tenets on conflict of interest and greater transparency on the declaration of private interest and assets
Nevertheless, the current system is based solely on a self-regulatory approach, which is not sufficient. Our institutions need a more effective and fairer independent assessment of conflicts of interest and ethical rules.
This is not a challenge to be taken lightly; parliaments around the world are asking themselves how to best achieve this. Ten years ago in France we created the High Authority for Transparency in Public Life following deplorable events of tax fraud committed by a minister. It is an example we can learn from, and improvements are always possible.
It is not a question of banning lobbying, of pointing fingers, of hindering the freedom of Members of the European Parliament, nor of undermining the separation of powers. Instead, it is about establishing a harmonised assessment of what is prohibited and what is authorised but must be declared and, above all, it is about spreading a culture of integrity, control and transparency.
We collectively need an independent European ethics body to strengthen the transparency and integrity of our institutions so we can prevent, rather than cure. Citizens’ trust must not be undermined. They expect action and they want this to become a reality – now.