Expert groups: oil on the wheels of our democracy... or sand in the engine?

4 December 2008

Expert groups: oil on the wheels of our democracy... or sand in the engine?

The EU remains in the grip of commercial interests who have used positions in 'expert groups' to exercise an unregulated influence on policy. The European Commission has reacted tardily and sporadically to demands for more openness. SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer is determined to see this change.


Erik MeijerOne group which is highly critical of this situation, the Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory, has repeatedly demanded more openness in relation to expert groups. Not only is it unclear what these advisory bodies discuss when they meet, even their membership is a secret. The European Commission wants to maintain the rule that membership is revealed only with the permission of the member in question. "Back-room politics," says Erik Meijer. "That's the only way I can describe it. Brussels has 1,214 expert groups which assist the EU in the formulation of all kinds of policy. As a citizen of a member state and a Member of the European Parliament, I want to know who's on these bodies, to be able, unhindered, to look into what influence they exercise and find out to what interests they are attached. If the European Commission's defensive statement that they are there to give purely technical advice is true, then these people shouldn't need to be ashamed of either their names or their advice."

'Partial access'

In April, Meijer put a number of written questions to the Commission on the allegedly disproportionate influence on policy preparation exercised by industry via expert groups. Information on the groups' composition was, however, denied. "Here in Brussels everything revolves around secrecy," the SP Euro-MP explains. "They call it 'partial access' and told me, two months after I put the questions, that because of the protection of commercial interests, full disclosure was not possible. Commercial interests therefore most certainly do play a major role."


The European Commission and the Dutch government claim that "expert groups are composed of people invited to contribute their expertise. This happens in advance of a decision by the Commission or when they are preparing a legislative proposal. In addition, expert groups often help the Commission in the surveillance of member states regarding their application of EU laws which are already on the books." Such was last April's reply from Dutch Secretary of State for European Affairs Frans Timmermans in answer to questions from SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel.

In September, the European Commission denied, in black and white, that the promotion of commercial interests is the primary function of expert groups. Yet in June they had written to the SP stating that "commercial interests" were indeed the reason why information was kept secret. "Brussels is always going on about transparency, but policy preparation is in reality as closed as an oyster. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an Amsterdam-based organisation which does research into threats to democracy , was promised by the Commission that membership of expert groups would be made public. This was supposed to happen in September, now we're told it will be January." Meijer praised CEO's persistent attempts to bring greater transparency to the EU.


Meijer's question to the Commission was this: "Can the Commission, given the fact that the Commission itself in its letter of 19th August 2008 to CEO awarded itself the title of 'champion of EU transparency', explain why outsiders repeatedly feel the need to insist on the carrying out of elementary transparency rules?"

Meijer: "For democracy in Europe it is important that the Commission takes the plunge. If Brussels wants to win the trust of the public then the Commission and the Council must make a radical break with the culture of decision-making in back-rooms."

Background - Influencing policy, lobbying and expert groups: "Make sure that your intervention is timely"

Brussels 'implementation scheme'

This 'implementation scheme' is used in Brussels to show how the potential influence of the public diminishes as legislation proceeds through the system, attempting to make clear that any influence of 'outsiders' is at its peak during the initiative period and the preparation phase. The implicit message is therefore "if you want to exercise influence, make sure you get in early."

The diagram is somewhat idealised: the reality is harder to budge. By the time the initiative phase begins, a great deal has already been settled. In some cases the matter in question has been researched for years, and – secret – consultations with expert groups have already been held. The problem has already been defined and definitions laid down by a small circle of insiders. The most relevant documents are, in this preparatory phase, not yet available in the twenty-three official EU languages, which results in people with many languages at their disposal having the greatest influence..

If you represent a major corporation or economic interest group and want to exercise an influence, you had certainly better not wait until the official consultation period begins. The chance is great that, if you do so, your opinion will be snowed under in a blizzard of reactions. Big corporations know this, and they employ lobbyists who, during the initiative phase and even earlier, get to work on promoting their clients' interests. Lobbying experts say also that exercising an influence is most effective before a proposal has been written. So the lobbying should be aimed at the official responsible.

It is important that new policy is not developed in isolation, but in consultation with those who understand the issues. These can be people with professional expertise, or simply with experience. Whether and to what extent each category is represented within these expert groups is impossible to discover. It's even harder to find out whose interests the groups' members represent. 'Technical' advice is, after all, never value-free. Even if this involves nothing more than the choice of a subject, the implicit refusal of another, competing subject means that this will receive less attention and less time when it comes to formulating policy.

It wouldn't be the first time that lobbyists have hidden behind scientists and technicians, lobbyists who are paid for their services by corporate interests. Democracy and public confidence in European institutions would benefit from the greatest possible openness.

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