Brussels 'Expert Groups' must be more balanced and more open

20 May 2019

Brussels 'Expert Groups' must be more balanced and more open

The car manufacturers who for years issued fraudulent information on their exhaust emissions could, via European Commission 'expert groups', exert influence on legislation. SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong brought to light the way these groups function. “Dieselgate showed once more how important it is that the multinationals' influence must be greatly reduced.”

Bart Linssen speaks to Dennis de Jong, MEP

In 2015 it was revealed that Volkswagen had committed fraud in relation to emission controls on their diesel motors. This was the beginning of ‘Dieselgate’ the revelation of a series of similar scandals in the entire auto industry. That these corporations were commonly able to lead the authorities up the garden path was no coincidence. Via European 'expert groups', around 80% of participants in which were provided by industry, car manufacturers were able to strongly influence the draughting of the legislation by which the methods of such controls were laid down. Dennis de Jong, who after ten years as a Euro-MP is standing down, here casts a spotlight on the shady world of these expert groups. “However technical a subject may be,” he says, “it's important to reduce the domination of industry in these groups.”

What is an expert group?

To understand that you have to know that the European Commission is actually a fairly small organisation which, furthermore, isn't able to hire a lot of outside consultants. In order despite this to have access to the knowledge necessary to the making of laws, the Commission puts small groups of 'experts’ to work. There are at presents hundreds of such groups.

Expert groups have a great deal of influence in the very earliest phase of a European law. You can understand that it's extremely important who is in that phase taking part in thinking about and writing legislation. Are they representatives of multinationals, or trade unionists and interest groups? Because once such a law is proposed, anyone who actually wants something different is already lagging behind.

How did you find out that there was something wrong going on here?

Before I became a MEP, I had good links with the corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI). The SP also had a great deal of contact with Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), which keeps a close eye on the corporate lobby. These organisations quickly pointed out to me the dominance of major corporations in the expert groups. I also heard stories from interest groups such as small business and consumers' organisations. They came up completely empty when I asked them about their experiences, because they said that every time they had to go through the multinationals

Long before the Dieselgate scandal broke we set ourselves two tasks. Firstly we wanted to get the expert groups out of the shadows, by releasing as much information as possible. Secondly we wanted to ensure that our allies were as able as possible to participate in the expert groups.

How did people at the European Commission react?

Many officials weren't happy about our interference. That has to do, in my view, with two things. First of all the European Commission consists of all the little kingdoms of officials who have fought their way to get there. Above all they don't want anyone else having a say over their territory. So when you want to make an agreement which holds for all these little kingdoms, you can expect heavy resistance. Secondly a lot of officials have come from industry, and will later return there. They know people from industry and from the major banks. These contacts were from the beginning asked to participate in discussions. That partly makes clear how the multinationals' interests work in practice.

For a long time myself and a group of like-minded MEPs directed our attention to the urgent need for transparency. Slowly but surely things began to move and we got information about groups of which previously hardly anything had been known. In this what helped enormously was that we succeeded in freezing for a year the moneys that the Commission used to finance the expert groups. That set the cat among the pigeons.

When did the ball really start to roll?

At a certain moment the pressure was so great that we received an enormous amount of information about the expert groups. In the first instance we researched this ourselves, and later we did it with Roland Blomeyer, an academic who became very involved and who, despite all the limits on the available information, had written a hard-hitting investigation. In one of his reports he concluded, for instance, that of the 1,394 meetings about which anything was known, only five had been held in public. And at just 267 of the 775 expert groups investigated did they record anything at all about what was discussed at their meeting. And the groups in which the representatives of multinationals participated turned out to consist largely of such people.

Because I'd proposed Blomeyer's study to the European Parliament Budgetary Control Committee, I was appointed rapporteur and could write a draft resolution on the issue. This was adopted in February 2017 by an overwhelming majority.

Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmermans tried to outmanoeuvre us, before the resolution had been adopted, by coming out with new rules for the expert groups. Fortunately, these turned out to be reasonably good. Many of our points had been incorporated. From now on a call would go out on a single website for participants in an expert group, so that small NGOs wouldn't miss it. In addition, the website would also include links to the reports from the expert groups and minority opinions would be publicised as well. The European Commission would have to explain what they themselves felt to be a balanced group. A good first step, though we'd eventually have to add that a maximum needed to be specified of the number of multinationals' representatives participating.

Were you happy with what you'd achieved?

In relation to transparency, a great deal has improved, but there's plenty left to do. It's important to ensure that interest groups have sufficient means to enable them to take part in the expert groups. Think of the position of a small entrepreneur who has to hire someone to take care of his or her affairs whenever they're taking part in such an expert group.

In addition the expert groups still need to work in a more transparent way. If for instance a meeting is held on something that's currently being talked about widely in society, such as a possible ban on the insecticide glyphosate, about which there's a lot of public debate, then the meeting should be open to the public. There are undoubtedly a lot of people who'd like to watch or listen in. And for the monitoring which should follow, as in the case of Dieselgate, it's important that people can check back and read or hear what was being said during such meetings.

At the same time we have registered some impressive victories. It's taken ten years, but we now have some insight into expert groups. We know preciely what's wrong with them. Since we dragged the expert groups out of the shadows, following the report from the researcher Professor Blomeyer, the number of groups in which industry is dominant has been almost halved. With that we have weakened the might of the multinationals and it's been possible to strengthen the voice of our allies.

What still needs to be done in order to prevent scandals like Dieselgate from happening in the future?

It's still frustrating how, when it comes to technical legislation, the Commission sticks firmly to its view that what's principally needed are 'experts' from industry, 'because at least they understand it.' Dieselgate shows clearly how absurd this reasoning is. The so-called experts from the auto industry certainly provided a great deal of information, but none of it proved any good, while environmental organisations, which stand up for our interests, had no chance to reply. In my view this is the agenda for the coming period: tackle the one-sidedness of the expert groups.

Dennis de Jong has been a Member of the European Parliament for the SP since 2009. Previous to that he worked as a special adviser on human rights and good governance to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his time in the European Parliament, De Jong has worked hard for more openness in Brussels, for example regarding the ridiculous level of MEPs' expenses payments and about the meetings which they have with lobbyists.

Bart Linssen is a member of the SP Nijmegen, This article first appeared in the SP periodical Spanning in May, 2019.

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