At present, roughly 800 expert groups advise the European Commission across all policy domains. These groups are made up of individual members and representatives of Member States and third countries, EU and international bodies, business, trade unions, civil society and academia amongst others. Their aim is to support the Commission’s work in the preparation of new legislation, delegated and implementing acts, the implementation of existing laws and the development of strategic policy orientations, by preparing purely advisory opinions, recommendations or reports.
Various criticisms have been directed at the expert group system in recent years, with accusations of unequal representation and insufficient transparency being levelled by MEPs and numerous civil society actors. MEPs have even twice voted to freeze expert groups’ budgets in an attempt to protest against what has been perceived by some as excessive corporate influence.
Thus, in the context of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s ongoing transparency drive, the Commission adopted new rules for the governance of these expert groups on 30th May. In accordance with these rules, Commission departments will now be obliged to issue public calls for applications for the selection of expert group members who provide external expertise throughout the decision-making process. These calls will be published on the revised Register of Expert Groups – also launched on 30th May – and must clearly define different selection criteria pertaining to the expertise and interest groups targeted. While actors representing Member States, third countries and EU and international bodies are excluded from the new rules, the hope is that this system will nevertheless lead to a more balanced representation of interests.
Commission departments will now also have to publish documents such as agendas, minutes and expert submissions, thereby increasing the general transparency surrounding the expert groups’ work. Efforts will moreover be made to counter conflicts of interest for persons appointed in a personal and independent capacity, with potential expert group members completing declarations of interest which will be subject to assessment by Commission officials and subsequently published on the Expert Group Register. Finally, group members representing specific interests or organisations will only be eligible for selection if they have also signed up to the EU’s Transparency Register – a condition that will also be applied retroactively to all current members.
In the opinion of Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans,
“When we design rules and policies we need the help of outside expertise to help us get it right. Citizens rightly expect this to be done in a transparent and balanced way. Thanks to the measures we are taking today, the Commission will benefit from high quality expertise while avoiding possible conflicts of interest, and the public will be able to hold us to account.”
In spite of his optimism, reactions to the new rules have not been universally positive. While the introduction of a conflict of interest policy and the ties to the transparency register have been welcomed by many different stakeholders, fears remain that the new rules do not go far enough. Indeed, some have suggested that the definition of a conflict of interest is still not broad enough while the Greens/EFA group regrets the “lack of commitment” to improving the balance of interest representation and has also criticised the Commission’s refusal to allow the European Ombudsman the chance to conclude her own inquiry into the matter before proposing the new rules.
The Ombudsman’s conclusions should provide an indication of the likelihood of long-term acceptance of the system. Reputed as someone who does not shy away from taking a stand, if she declares the adapted rules sufficient, stakeholders are more likely to view these recent developments as proof of the Commission’s ongoing commitment to transparency and to accept them as a significant first step. On the other hand, should she call for further action, there is a chance that those who have already spoken out about what they perceive to be the system’s main failures will continue pushing for change.
In any case, it would not be an exaggeration to say that in spite of Timmermans’ confidence in the matter, the battle is not yet over. Against a background of drives to increase transparency in every aspect of the institutions’ working, decision-makers should be prepared to open up even further if they are to satisfy those calling for a completely new approach to transparency in the long term.