Finnish presidency fails the expectations to strengthen transparency in the EU council

I and 96 other MEPs wrote a letter on 3 April 2019 to the incoming Finnish EU Presidency demanding for more transparency in the decision making in the Council and an end to privileged access to decision-makers, in particular the corporate sponsorships of the EU Presidencies.

Ms Tytti Tuppurainen, Minister for European Affairs sent us her response on 22 October.

In her letter Minister Tuppurainen recalls that increasing the openness and transparency of the EU is one of Finland’s long-standing goals and that Finland believes that transparency and open communication play a significant role in bringing the EU closer to citizens, as it increases the trust, legitimacy and accountability of the EU. Certainly, this is a notion the 97 MEPs would fully agree with.

We welcome the information provided by Minister Tuppurainen that during the Finnish Presidency, Finland is implementing some measures to make the Council’s work more open towards citizens and facilitating discussions on ways to increase the transparency of the EU during the next legislative cycle.

However, the Minister notes in her letter that it is important to strike a balance between the effectiveness of decision-making and transparency. While effective decision-making is in the best interest of EU citizens and a core element of good governance, it is important to remember that limitations to transparency ought to be as minimal as possible and that there ought to be no generic justifications for specific refusals to disclose information. ‘Effective decision-making’ is often used as an excuse exactly for refusing public access to information.

Further, it is disappointing that Minister Tuppurainen failed entirely to comment on our view that we find it unacceptable that Council working parties do not consistently produce minutes of meetings including the negotiating positions of the member states – which are neither systematically recorded nor made public.

We expressed hope that the Finnish Presidency would have introduced good practices in this area. A good example would be set if the Presidency published the minutes of the Council working group of 25 October which dealt with country by country reporting of taxes by large enterprises. It is of utmost importance to know which Member States continue to block this legislation so vital for combatting tax evasion.

The issue of lack of transparency concerning the Council minutes and position is not the only concern the MEPs raised with the Finnish Presidency.

The signatories of the letter also expressed a particular concern over the reported corporate sponsorships of the EU Presidencies. Worryingly, the Council does not have guidelines concerning private corporate sponsorship of the EU Presidencies. During last summer it was reported that Finland had agreed a sponsorship agreement with BMW for its Presidency. In her letter, Minister Tuppurainen explains that Finland has indeed concluded a partnership agreement with Oy BMW Suomi Ab following an EU-wide call for tenders. She explained that the cars were used for transport during the informal ministerial meetings that were organised in Helsinki in July and September 2019.

What is a cause for concern is the fact that the Finnish Presidency had secured a sponsorship agreement with a private entity that has an active interest in influencing EU decision-making. Minister Tuppurainen might have confused ordinary agreements with sponsorship agreements in her letter. By mistake, I trust.

The automotive emissions scandals in Europe took place only some years ago. To then accept a private sponsor with a direct interest in this area of regulation is indefensible and fails the political smell test.

Minister Tuppurainen did comment such sponsorship agreements in her response, by merely stating that: “Corporate sponsorships are a matter falling within the remit of each Member State and we do not foresee discussions about the matter with the other Member States.”

This, I am afraid, is an entirely defective and deflective answer. The reason the MEPs felt compelled to raise this issue with the Finnish Presidency is exactly because the corporate sponsorships are now considered exclusively within the remit of individual Member States. In our view, it should not be so.

The answer by Minister Tuppurainen ignores the fact that the European Ombudsman on 15 July 2019 opened an inquiry on the very same matter. In her letter to the EU Council Ombudsman O’Reilly writes that she has decided to open the inquiry given the positive steps that many EU institutions have taken on issues of transparency and lobbying and the increased citizen awareness and expectations around these issues.

In its response, the EU Council on 23 October confirmed that the informal activities by the EU Presidencies are not governed by any rules that would regulate sponsorships by corporations. We hold that the EU Presidency as such is obviously to be considered part of the EU Council and thereby obliged to comply with the EU Treaties and the Council’s Rules of Procedure.

The opening of the Ombudsman’s inquiry does not appear to have triggered any reflection of the matter in the Finnish Presidency team. In their letter the 97 MEPs urged the Finnish Presidency not only to refuse corporate sponsorships of the Presidency but also make a proposal to other Member States that all future presidencies agree to such a rule.

Needless to say, a technical distinction by an EU Member State holding the Presidency on which event is informal and which is formal, while being labelled an EU Council event all the same, has created a regulatory black hole in the running of the Council Presidencies.

Minister Tuppurainen ends her letter by expressing a wish that the contacts between the Finnish Presidency and the MEPs will remain constructive and forward-looking during the final months of their Presidency.

It is impossible to fail to notice the gap between the pledges of the Finnish Presidency and the failure to set new, more transparent working methods. For a Presidency whose self-declared priority was openness and transparency, this is an inexplicably meagre ending.