“Tory MEPs ‘copy and paste’ Amazon and Google lobbyists text'” ran a Telegraph headline last week with allegations that between 23-25% of the amendments tabled by Tory MEPs Malcolm Harbour, Saj Karim and Giles Chichester on the data protection regulation came from lobbyists. The source for the story, www.lobbyplag.com, highlights the systematic tabling of lobbyists’ amendments by MEPs of all political persuasions and nationalities. Anyone who has worked in the EU institutions knows that this is not the exception and such practices are rife.
The Telegraph reporting and scrambled denials from the MEPs implied that this practice was somehow questionable and even immoral. However, there is no question that the MEPs received any form of payment or other forms of coercion to table those amendments. They have not acted illegally or improperly.
Furthermore, politicians are rarely specialists and, if they are, they find themselves working on important issues outside their speciality that are often vital to their constituents. They need technical support from stakeholders who, affected by the proposed law, have the expertise to identify potential improvements. The media are forever bemoaning ‘burdensome EU regulation’, which is precisely why it makes sense to involve businesses, unions, NGOs and others in the drafting process. Otherwise we are left with legislation crafted entirely by ill-informed politicians and bureaucrats.
It should also be recognised that lobbyists compete with each other and amendments were tabled from opposing sides of the argument. While Malcolm Harbour allegedly tabled amendments from Google in support of a looser data protection regime, Amelia Andersdotter, a Swedish Pirate Party MEP, apparently tabled a host of amendments from NGOs seeking tighter standards of data protection. Yes, it may raise fewer eyebrows to table an amendment from an NGO such as Greenpeace but they have no more right to seek to influence legislation than a business such as Shell.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to totally shake the feeling that some politicians are in the pocket of vested interests and that the tabling of certain amendments can generate indirect advantages such as political or fundraising support. So what should change? Banning MEPs from tabling lobbyists’ amendments would be counter-productive and only serve to force the practice further underground with politicians masking the source of their amendments. It is also ludicrous to believe that either pro-shale gas or pro-environment politicians would support their cause any less in the absence of specific amendment suggestions.
The solution is transparency. At the moment, it is often only apparent that an MEP has tabled a lobbyist’s amendment if another MEP tables the exact same text. This situation is clearly unsustainable. If politicians are so convinced by a lobbyist’s amendments, then they should be obliged to confess where it came from.
Alexander Alvaro MEP has led the way by publishing draft amendments on his website with accompanying briefing notes and an invitation for the public and stakeholders to suggest changes. An innovative solution to this problem would be to expand Alvaro’s approach by introducing a new procedure in the European Parliament whereby stakeholders would be invited to submit their amendments for consideration and, in important cases, be given the chance to justify them in the committee. MEPs could then openly assess their merits and publically acknowledge their source if they table them. The Commission and national governments conduct public consultations and receive input in their drafting of legislation, why shouldn’t the Parliament do the same?
In the absence of such change, lobbyists’ amendments will still be tabled. Some MEPs will be cannier in the aftermath of this scandal and change a word here or a sentence there to avoid the charge of ‘copy and paste’. But it won’t improve EU legislation and, in the arbitrary search to change a word or two, it could actually reduce the quality of amendments. Only the bright light of transparency can make a genuine difference.