Five Irish MEPs did not report any meetings with lobbyists and interest groups in the three years after the start of their terms in the European Parliament, transparency data shows.
Fine Gael’s head of delegation, Seán Kelly, and his party colleagues Deirdre Clune and Colm Markey did not register any meetings with interest groups from July 2019 until they were contacted by The Irish Times. Neither did Left independent MEPs Mick Wallace and Luke Ming Flanagan.
MEPs are obliged by parliament rules to report any meetings with lobbyists that are related to their positions in special roles close to a particular parliamentary file, as either committee chairs, rapporteurs or shadow rapporteurs.
They are also encouraged to report on a voluntary basis any other meetings organised with interest groups that aim to influence policymaking, something many MEPs have adopted as a routine practice as part of efforts to make the activities of the estimated 20,000 lobbyists that work in Brussels more transparent.
“If an MEP with a special role has declared no meetings, it is not possible to know whether no meetings took place, or if the MEP is breaking the rules by not publishing them,” said Raphael Kergueno, EU integrity policy officer at Transparency International EU, which compiled the reporting record of all the parliament’s 705 MEPs.
Meetings with representatives of those impacted by legislation, like industry groups, NGOs and civil society groups, are considered a routine part of day-to-day work by most MEPs.
Mr Kelly is rapporteur on legislation strengthening the EU’s ability to enforce its Brexit agreements with Britain by imposing trade tariffs, and has been rapporteur for the implementation of an energy performance of buildings directive, and shadow rapporteur on a report on citizen engagement with EU rulemaking.
In response to questions from The Irish Times, Mr Kelly said his office had not been aware of the deadline to register meetings “due to an administrative oversight”, citing the “high volume of work in my office”.
MEPs are instructed to report any scheduled meetings regarding a topic on which they have a special role before a vote takes place; or if it is held last-minute, a week after the vote at the latest.
Social media posts show during his term the Ireland South MEP met several organisations listed on the official transparency register as groups that try to influence EU policy, including European Movement Ireland, Ibec, Chambers Ireland, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the British Agriculture Bureau, the Irish Farmers’ Association, and Gas Networks Ireland.
Mr Kelly said none of these meetings “fall under any obligatory reporting rules as they were not related directly to files I was working on”.
He noted that he had been in contact with stakeholders regarding the energy performance of building directive and that “all of these meetings will be officially recorded in due time”. His other files “had very little direct engagement with outside stakeholders,” he said, but promised to “go through my records and ensure they are made public”.
Ms Clune has been rapporteur on a report about increasing the digital integration of Europe and artificial intelligence, and shadow rapporteur on a report on human rights and democracy, and on a regulation on organic pollutants. Social media posts show Ms Clune met several times with the Irish Farmers’ Association, as well as with Alzheimer Europe, both registered lobby groups.
The Ireland South MEP told the Irish Times her office had reported no meetings due to an “administrative oversight concerning the registration deadlines”. Since being contacted, 28 meetings were added to Ms Clune’s register, including 21 in her capacity as shadow rapporteur on the Artificial Intelligence Act. The meetings with Alzheimer Europe and the IFA “did not relate to my work as a rapporteur or shadow rapporteur on a specific file”, and were thus outside the obligatory reporting rules, she said.
Midlands North-West MEP Colm Markey, who started his term in 2020, has been a shadow rapporteur on one report about allowing inland waterway pilots licensed outside the EU to operate in the union. “We saw no reason to have, or didn’t have any meetings in relation to this report,” Mr Markey said.
Social media posts show he has met registered interest groups including the IFA, Ulster Farmers’ Union, British Agriculture Bureau and Dóchas. Mr Markey described these as “general meetings” and said “I saw no reason to register them.”
“I fully appreciate the importance of accountability and transparency and I have insisted that our office be particular about maintaining a record of all meetings. I am happy to update the register from this record if necessary,” he said.
Left Group independent Mick Wallace has been shadow rapporteur on 15 reports, mostly on foreign affairs, security and defence, but also on climate change and the reduction of methane emissions. The Ireland South MEP did not respond to a request for comment as to why no meetings with interest groups had been declared to the transparency register during his term.
Fellow Left Group independent Luke Ming Flanagan has been a rapporteur on one file and shadow rapporteur on almost 50 reports mostly relating to EU budgets, nominations to the EU court of auditors, and efforts to combat financial fraud.
After being contacted by The Irish Times, the Midlands North-West MEP said his record had been updated over the course of the weekend. It now notes seven meetings with interest groups, including three related to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy held in his capacity as shadow rapporteur.
The MEPs who had the strongest records in reporting lobbying in the period captured by Transparency International data from July 2019 to September 12th last were the Green Party’s Grace O’Sullivan, who reported 154 meetings; and Ciarán Cuffe, who reported 120.
Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher reported 68 meetings in the period, followed by Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald on 32 and Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus on 28. Mr MacManus said he believed he had declared all meetings he was obliged to. Ms Fitzgerald said her declared meetings had since increased to 102, partly due to meetings regarding her work on a directive countering violence against women.
“Everyone should be able to see who has met with, and attempted to influence, MEPs charged with drafting legislation,” said Mr Kelleher, an MEP for Ireland South.
“The legal and ethical requirement is clear and I believe it should be enhanced to include more elements of the process. No MEP should be afraid of being open and honest about who they are meeting with and taking soundings or advice from.”
Fine Gael’s Maria Walsh reported 18, while Left Independent MEP Clare Daly and Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews each reported three. Mr Andrews said he mostly worked on files that did not attract much lobbying, but that any meetings covered under the rules would be declared ahead of the relevant votes. Ms Daly did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms Walsh said her meetings had all been documented. “I believe it’s crucial that we are open and transparent on all matters, and public scrutiny is part and parcel of this,” she said.
The Green MEPs said their party kept to stricter reporting standards than the parliament rules stipulated, with Ms O’Sullivan saying her staff also reported their meetings with interest groups, though this was not required.
“All elected representatives meet with interest groups, it is part of the job. Those meetings should be recorded,” said Ireland South MEP Ms O’Sullivan. “The current requirement for MEPs to declare meetings in only a limited set of circumstances is clearly inadequate and often these low standards are not even met.”
Mr Cuffe said current reporting rules should be strengthened to make it mandatory for all meetings with interest groups to be declared.
“Transparency is essential to build public trust in the parliament, to fight corruption, and to ensure that MEPs are held accountable for the decisions that we take,” the Dublin MEP said. “Citizens have a right to know what interests are influencing the laws that affect them.”
Data for all 705 MEPs compiled by Transparency International showed that MEPs from Scandinavian countries, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had the strongest records for reporting lobbying meetings, while Greece, Cyprus and Latvia had the weakest performance. Overall, Ireland rated in the middle of the table.