Op-ed debate: Should NGOs be subject to stricter transparency regulation?

Op-ed debate: Should NGOs be subject to stricter transparency regulation?
Опубликовано: Monday, 20 March 2023 10:07
(Photo: Flickr/Kate Gardiner)

We’re trying out a new format, in which we publish an op-ed and a counter-op-ed in one article. This week, we have the S&D group president responding to EPP chairman Manfred Weber’s call for stricter financial screening of NGOs to combat corruption.

How to save NGOs from the Qatargate black sheep

By Manfred Weber MEP, Chairman, EPP Group; Monika Hohlmeier MEP, Chair of Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control; Petri Sarvamaa MEP, EPP Group Spokesman on Budgetary Control

Millions of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are doing outstanding work every day, both locally and globally. They are helping to change the world in their niche, and their hard-working employees deserve admiration and respect.

Yet, like in any other public activity, there are disingenuous people using NGOs as a cover to bribe and carry out non-transparent lobbying and influence peddling, as the so-called Qatargate case has shown. In this scandal, a former Member of Parliament, a former Vice-President, and several of their Socialist colleagues abused the system for their benefit. Gladly, they are now facing the scrutiny of justice. However, the case has shown that we need to reinforce control and plug loopholes so that corruption cases like Qatargate will be prevented as much as possible.

We EPP Group Members have been advocating for clear standards and transparent and enforceable rules. Unfortunately, not everyone in the European Parliament is willing to cooperate with us in a thorough reflection and investigation of the Qatargate scandal. These are mainly the colleagues from the Socialists and the Greens. During this moment of a massive confidence crisis the Institutions are facing, it is up to all of us to try to restore trust.

The millions of Euros stuffed by front organisations, disguised as NGOs, into the suitcases of the accused is a massive blow to all of us trying to do politics reasonably and respecting the rules. The vast majority of parliament and the other Institutions should not be mixed up with the criminals that took bribes, and we do not want to blame all NGOs because of the misconduct of a few. We must fight together if we want to regain citizens’ trust. We need to expose the black sheep undermining our work and that of all legitimate NGOs worldwide.

To make the EU legislation’s process as transparent as possible, we support the immediate measures for greater transparency introduced by the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola. However, we need to get to the core of the scandal too. We urgently need comprehensive financial pre-screening of NGOs before they are listed in the transparency register, formalise the publication of contractual agreements between the European Commission and NGOs, and a stand-alone NGO Regulation which establishes a clear definition and makes it possible to treat prominent, large-scale NGOs like companies with the same reporting obligations.

Moreover, we call for the creation of a European equivalent to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act. We need politicians and lobbyists from third countries to register and reveal how they approach EU lawmakers, including formal contracts. The EPP Group will further continue working on concrete steps in Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee and in close cooperation with the European Court of Auditors.

We should not forget that we are living in difficult times. There is a brutal war raging on our continent. We are facing an economic and energy crisis. It is more important than ever that we allow citizens to maintain confidence in our European Institutions and their law-making process. We are on the same side in this struggle with all the NGOs that want to solve problems. We need to set rules that will make it harder for non-transparent and fictional NGOs to sneak around and deceive EU Institutions. We are determined and we will persevere in this fight, with or without the support of the Socialists and the Greens.


An NGO witch-hunt is not the answer

By Iratxe García Pérez, S&D Group president; Gaby Bischoff, S&D vice president

The allegations of corruption that emerged from the Qatargate scandal shocked everyone in the European institutions. Beyond Brussels, it undermined public trust and risked doing long-term damage to citizen’s confidence in our democratic processes. That is why in the immediate wake of the crisis, the socialists and democrats set out a clear plan to push for more transparency and accountability in the European Parliament.

We cannot ignore the fact that a non-governmental organisation (NGO) acted as a cover to mislead a handful of individual MEPs. Nevertheless, we have to avoid making civil society as a whole the scapegoat. We should not tarnish the reputation of all NGOs with the same brush.

Transparency rules undoubtedly need tightening. If the EPP is serious about going down a road that restores people’s trust in EU policies and processes, they should explain how exactly.

An NGO witch-hunt won’t cut it though. Pointing the blame at civil society is a strategy orchestrated by the EPP to divert attention away from the disproportionate role that corporate lobbying has long played in the EU’s legislative process.

In the face of a progressive coalition fighting for tighter transparency rules for all interest groups, the conservatives and right-wing political groups in this House want to take a cherry-picking approach. Instead, we need to make sure the same transparency rules apply to all interest groups, including big business lobbies, which want to speak to elected members and officials.

Our Members have first-hand experience of attempts by big business to lead legislation astray in the negotiations on the Digital Services and Digital Markets Act. A lobby group that claimed to be representing the interests of small and medium-sized businesses was in fact a cover for Big Tech.

If we only introduced more transparency and more scrutiny for NGOs, the elephant in the room would remain untouched. This kind of misleading and inappropriate corporate lobbying would continue. So what are the next steps?

Last month, the European Parliament reinforced the mandate of the INGE committee (on foreign interference) to identify the shortcomings in the European Parliament’s rules on transparency, integrity, accountability and anti-corruption. Led by S&D Chair Raphaël Glucksmann, the committee will come up with recommendations for reforms, building on best practices in other parliaments and institutions.

There is no need to sit on our hands until then. In 2021, MEPs reached an "inter-institutional agreement" on a mandatory transparency register. We should already apply this agreement in a much stricter way. This week, a meeting of the Parliament’s Bureau was a prime opportunity to make changes to the revolving door phenomenon where former MEPs, often experts in different fields, are paid to lobby sitting MEPs. We proposed pushing this cooling off period to a maximum of two years. The EPP led support for a watered down period of only 6 months. Casting the decisive vote, President Metsola sided with her friends in the EPP. This was a missed opportunity that shows some are not as serious about reform as they would like us to think.

With a 15-point plan, the S&D Group is showing that we are serious about change. We will make sure meetings with third-party representatives take place fully in line with the EU Transparency Register. That means publishing scheduled meetings and only meeting with interest groups on the transparency register. We are banning paid trips from third parties and we will forbid MEPs from keeping gifts above 100 Euros, to name but a few.

The public has a right to know what and who is behind different interest groups. That is why we should regularly verify the funding streams to and from all organisations that are listed on the transparency register. Without this kind of information, it is very difficult for citizens to hold decision-makers to account.

Subjecting already underfunded NGOs to higher standards of scrutiny than the private sector only risks drowning out the voices of those who speak for the voiceless. Corporate interests, with much deeper pockets than NGOs, cannot be allowed to continue to their opaque lobbying practices while civil society is hung out to dry. We need less political blame games and more commitments on concrete steps that will build a culture of genuine transparency over all interest groups.