To continue the debate started by Andrea on transparency, I would like to draw your attention to Commission experts groups. They don’t ring a bell? That’s to be expected; they have been staying in the shadows of revolving doors and lobbying scandals. This article aims to shed light on the Commission expert groups which are key actors of EU decision-making and highlight the transparency and balance issues that they pose.
The expert groups – 1,214 according to the Commission Expert Group Register– are solicited to bring expertise to the Commission during the early phase of EU decision-making. Expert groups are discussion groups which provide the Commission with contributions in the form of opinions, recommendations and reports. Their existence is justified mainly by the limited resources of the Commission which deals with complex trans-national issues. The Commission has large discretion over the creation of such groups including the selection of experts and the mandates of the groups. Furthermore, the advice given by the expert groups is not binding for the European Commission.
Expert group members have privileged access to the Commission’s upcoming initiatives and have a unique opportunity to influence legislation long before the public debate starts. This undeniably constitutes a strategic advantage, and therefore, there is a need for reinforced transparency and balance. Lobby and transparency watchdogs, Alter-EU and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), as well as the European Parliament, have identified important issues concerning these matters.
The selection of experts and the balance of the groups’ composition is one. The Commission must respect a balanced representation of genders, geographical origins and interests. It can appoint experts from the public and/or private sector: enterprises, NGOs, trade unions, universities, research establishments, EU bodies, international organizations and representatives from Member States’ authorities (at national, regional or local level). Both Alter-EU and CEO repeatedly denounced imbalances in expert groups, mostly in favor of corporate interest. This view is supported by scholars, such as Gornitzka and Sverdrup from OsloUniversity. However, the two Norwegian researchers evidenced an overwhelming dominance of national interest representation, followed by corporate interest.
Moreover, the lack of transparency particularly in relation to the Register is criticized. It seems that information is still missing from the Register (membership, minutes, agendas, reports, etc.), is outdated or even inconsistent. In spite of the Directive on access to EU documents, NGOs reported difficulties in accessing expert group documents. The Commission appears to be rather reluctant to give away information on expert groups. Why are they being so secretive if their activities are carried out by balanced expert groups? The Commission justifies its reluctance to disclose information with claims related to personal data protection, commercial interests or invoking the guarantee of independent scrutiny…
The European institutions are well aware of the problems and the criticism directed towards expert groups. Indeed, in 2011, the European Parliament set an ultimatum to the Commission to modify the rules on expert groups putting a 2 million euro budget reserve on the funding of committees. They asked for a more balanced composition of the experts groups, for the ban of lobbyists sitting in a personal capacity; for common selection criteria and public calls for applications; and finally for full transparency. In September 2012, the EP agreed to lift the reserve and started an informal dialogue with the Commission. The Commission reported on the modification of certain expert groups to make them more balanced, as well as the relabelling of experts from personal capacity to representatives of stakeholders or of the Member States.
On the 6th May 2013, a group of stakeholders from civil society addressed an open letter to Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič to point out the remaining work required to reach the conditions fixed by the EP, last September, when it decided to lift the budget reserve. In order to ensure the balance in interest representation, the signatories claim that more should be done to raise awareness on the calls for applications and to find participants from civil society. Moreover, experts appointed in their personal capacity can also disguise imbalances. In spite of the Commission’s relabelling of experts in 31 groups, in 2012, according to an Alter-EU investigation, there are still expert group members labelled in the Register as appointed in their personal capacity when they are clearly related to the industry sector. Yiorgos Vassalos, Researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, called for the ban of experts acting “in a personal capacity”; indeed, the Commission should stop “hiding lobbyists under the carpet” pretending that they are standing for public interest while they are obviously connected to particular interests.
The remaining question is: what is the impact of unbalanced expert groups on policy? I am inclined to believe that there are chances of bias in favor of a certain interest if advice is provided by an unbalanced expert group. It is not a surprise that certain interests can have more weight in the balance than others, for instance corporate and business interests, as pointed out by the transparency watchdogs. The Commission’s high reliance on expert groups as a source of information and expertise can therefore become dangerous and can be a threat to public interest. The EU recent scandal of MEPs copy-pasting text from US lobbyists’ position papers (and the many others) has proven that there is an urgent need to deal with balance and transparency issues. The Transparency Register is currently under review, the staff regulation has tightened up the rule on revolving doors and more should follow on the Commission expert groups. MEPs, the European Ombudsman, as well as civil society, closely monitor the Commission’s progresses in this regard. The Commission could also play a more proactive role in checking the absence of conflict of interest of expert group members, following the example of the US Congress. Ensuring that expert groups are more balanced and open could contribute to reinforcing the confidence gap between the EU and its citizens.
 The rules concerning expert groups are set in two documents: C(2010) 7649 final, Communication from the President to the Commission – Framework for Commission Expert Groups: Horizontal rules and public register and SEC(2010) 1360 final, Commission Staff Working Document accompanying the Communication from the President to the Commission – Framework for Commission Expert Groups: Horizontal rules and public register.
 See their report from 2008: http://www.corporatejustice.org/IMG/pdf/expertgroupsreport.pdf
 Expert appointed in personal capacity are experts who are sitting in the group representing public interest and not representing stakeholders or of the Member States’ interests.