Agencies’ 2010 discharge
Postponement over conflict of interest amid turmoil in EP
By Gaspard Sebag and Sophie Petitjean | Thursday 10 May 2012
The postponement of the 2010 discharge for three agencies – the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – has created much stir within the European Parliament. On 10 May, a slim majority in plenary followed the lead of rapporteur Monica Macovei (EPP, Romania), who recommended, on grounds of alleged conflicts of interest, to postpone clearing their accounts for 2010 until autumn in order to “clarify” matters. While most MEPs agree that there are problems, they are divided on how to deal with them.
Both Macovei and Ingeborg Grässle (EPP, Germany) told
Europolitics that there had been lobbying within the Parliament to push for granting the three agencies discharge. Lucas Hartong (NI, Netherlands) believes that the Socialists, in particular, “want to prevent further scrutiny of the agencies”. “People from these agencies and the industries are very powerful and talk to some of our colleagues,” said the rapporteur. This provoked an outburst from Jutta Haug (S&D, Germany), who believes that Macovei’s recommendation is based on “disinformation” and “half truths”.
The Socialists concede that there are problems and “potential conflicts of interest” (Edit Herczog from Hungary). Yet, in Jens Geier’s (Germany) view, postponing discharge is a “disproportionate political reaction” as he considers that Macovei does not take the agencies’ reactions into account. Furthermore, he believes that Parliament should wait for the release of a report on potential conflicts of interest in the agencies from the EU Court of Auditors (ECA) due this year. “We should not reverse the burden of proof,” argues Herczog.
Michael Theurer (ALDE, Germany) also appears to find Macovei’s approach over-the-top: “we are not prosecutors,” he said. His group, against postponing discharge, appears to have doubts about Macovei’s intentions. “I have to wonder whether there is a hidden agenda behind this,” said Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (ALDE, Germany). Some suggest that Macovei, who questions all agencies’ utility and added value in the context of austerity measures across the Union, might want to get rid of some of them. Their cost in 2010 was €620 million.
The European Food Safety Authority, based in Parma, Italy, has been the target of much criticism in particular with regard to the former Management Board chair (see box). Furthermore, deputies find it unacceptable that meetings of the 15-strong Management Board cost on average €92.630 (€6.175 per member), which is nearly three times higher than that of the second most expensive Management Board of a decentralised agency.
MEPs are worried about a payment of €33,791 made to environmental NGO Earthwatch while the European Environment Agency’s executive director was a member of the board of that same NGO. Before granting discharge, deputies asked the European Medicines Agency for an action plan to improve procurement and contract management and sought assurances as to the impartiality of the EMA’s employees and of national experts temporarily seconded to it. The EMA’s discharge was also postponed last year.
While the Commission has criticised the conflict of interests within the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), it has said it will not make any legislative proposals on the matter “as there is not a minimum consensus between member states,” the institution’s press service said, on 10 May, in the wake of Diána Bánáti’s resignation from her position as chair of the agency’s Management Board. EFSA had asked the Hungarian expert to resign, on 8 May, due to her new post within the agro-food lobby International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).
“The European Commission regrets Mrs Bánáti’s direct passage from EFSA to ILSI. It is not illegal as such, since members of the Management Board are not subject to EU rules on conflicts of interest. Nonetheless, this goes against the spirit of independence of EFSA,” said a Commission spokesman.