Auteur: Valentina Pop
BRUSSELS - The European Parliament on Thursday (10 May) decided to withhold approval on the 2010 accounts of three EU agencies marred by conflicts of interests.
The council of ministers, which is refusing to disclose the way it spends money, also got a red light.
The votes come one day after Diana Banaty, a top official, resigned from the EU food safety authority (Efsa) in Italy to go and work for the same food lobby outfit she was criticised for having been a member of two years ago.
The European Commission said that while the move was "not illegal," it was "against the spirit of independence of Efsa" and pledged to work with member states and the European Parliament on new "cooling-off periods" for agency staff.
The Socialists and the majority centre-right EPP group advised its members to vote against the Efsa budget block, but a total of 321 MEPs voted in favour anyway, while 306 opposed and 14 abstained.
Similarly close votes were registered in the case of the European Enviroment Agency, whose director was also a member of an NGO which was paid EU money to organise "training sessions" for EEA staff in the Caribbean.
The EEA 2010 budget block was approved with 329 votes in favour, while 291 were against and 20 abstained.
The London-based European Medicines Agency - where one director defected to industry, while another one resigned over a drugs scandal in France - was shamed by 340 votes in favour, 268 against and 14 abstentions.
"I know specialists are hard to find outside industry, this is a reality. But we need to have a proper management of the situation, including cooling periods and ensuring decisions taken by these people truly represent the public interest, not some other interests," Romanian centre-right MEP Monica Macovei, who drafted the parliament's position paper, told press after the vote.
She said agencies would have a few months time to implement new rules on recruitment and to publish the CVs of all their staff, directors and scientific experts.
Meanwhile, the Council of ministers - the body which prepares the meetings of EU diplomats, ministers and leaders - continued to say it has no obligation to open its books to MEPs, prompting a near-unanimous backlash:
614 voted in favour of postponing the budget discharge.
"The council still does not answer our questions, this is unacceptable," said German Liberal MEP Michael Theurer, who chairs the budgetary control committee.
The council says that back in the 1970s there was a gentleman's agreement that the two institutions would not peer into each others' books.
Theurer argues that the deal is out of date in the new-model assembly, where members are directly elected and have sweeping budgetary control powers over almost every other aspect of EU spending.
In 2009, the Spanish EU presidency for the first time admitted the gentlemen's agreement is obsolete. The Swedish EU presidency later found an "informal" way to answer the MEP's questions by publishing replies on its presidency website.
This year, the Danish EU presidency gave the same standard reply as scores of presidencies before them, however: the matter is out of its hands.
MEPs are especially keen to find out if the council has overspent on its €240-million glass-egg-type new headquarters, currently under cosntruction in Brussels.
They also want to know how money is being used in the newly-born European External Action Service, which eludes normal scrutiny by being a hybrid commission-council entity.