In order to safeguard the legislative process from impropriety and to uphold good governance, a new Code of Conduct for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) entered into force in 2012, and a transparency register for “lobbyists” was recently adopted. Companies seeking to further their business interests by influencing legislation via access to MEPs should take care to abide by the Code of Conduct and the provisions of the UK Bribery Act 2010.
Seeking to influence the content of legislation can lead to better-informed policy choices, especially with regard to the European Parliament, whose legislative remit covers a vast array of policy areas ranging from industry, research and energy to agricultural matters, and whose measures have a considerable impact on national legislation.
In order to safeguard the legislative process from impropriety and to uphold good governance, a new Code of Conduct for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) entered into force in 2012, and a transparency register for “lobbyists” was recently adopted. Companies seeking to further their business interests by influencing legislation via access to MEPs should take care to abide by the Code of Conduct and, especially, the provisions of the UK Bribery Act 2010. Failure to do so may lead to high fines and harsh custodial penalties.
Dealing with MEPs: UK Bribery Act 2010
As a general principle, MEPs are bound by a duty not to solicit, accept or receive any financial benefit or other reward in exchange for influencing legislation. In particular, they are required to consciously seek to avoid any situation which might imply bribery or corruption.
Gifts, Perquisites and Emoluments
When performing their duties and representing Parliament in an official capacity, MEPs must not accept any gifts or the like, unless they have an approximate value of less than EUR 150. However, such prohibition does not obtain in relation to the reimbursement of travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses, or to the direct payment of such expenses by third parties, when MEPs attend, pursuant to an invitation and in the performance of their duties, events organised by third parties. Caution must be taken here, however. Reimbursement of disproportionately large expenses can be a criminal offence under the UK Bribery Act 2010.
UK Bribery Act 2010
The UK Bribery Act 2010 provides for a specific offence of bribery of foreign public officials (section 6)—a category into which improper dealings with MEPs would fall. A person commits an offence by providing an advantage which merely intends to influence the recipient of the advantage in his or her capacity as a foreign public official, and to obtain or retain business or an advantage in the conduct of business.
Only scant guidance has been given as to the scope of what may be legitimately provided to a foreign public official in the ordinary course of business, such as hospitality and promotional expenditure. The conundrum, therefore, is where to draw the line as to when hospitality and promotional or other similar business expenditure is used as a bribe. The authorities will look into the giving of an advantage in a circumstantial context where the higher the expenditure or lavishness of an advantage given to a foreign public official can lead to a stronger inference that it is intended to influence the official in return for a favour.
The absence of a bright line test here means that it can be easy to fall on the wrong side of the line. The sanctions can be draconian: unlimited fines and up to 10 years imprisonment for individuals. Companies are therefore urged to act with caution when seeking to engage an MEP to further their business interests.
Finally, it is of note that the long jurisdictional arm of the Bribery Act 2010 extends to UK citizens, residents and companies incorporated in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, foreign companies doing business in the United Kingdom can be held liable for failing to prevent bribery.
Dealing with MEPs: Transparency
It is also of note that both MEPs and entities seeking to engage their services are under certain transparency obligations.
Financial Declaration by MEPS
As far as financial interests are concerned, MEPs are required to submit a declaration, which must be accompanied by a wealth of information, including the following:
- Any regular remunerated activity which the MEP undertakes in tandem with the exercise of his or her office, whether as an employee or as a self-employed person
- Any occasional remunerated outside activity, if the total remuneration exceeds EUR 5,000 per annum
- Any support additional to that provided by the European Parliament and granted to the MEP in connection with his or her political activities by third parties, whose identity must be disclosed
It is expected that all organisations engaged in “activities carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formulation or implementation of policy and decision-making processes of the EU institutions” sign up to a specific register. These activities include contacting MEPs; preparing, circulating and communicating letters, information material or argumentation and position papers; organising events, meetings or promotional activities, etc. Access cards to the European Parliament’s buildings will only be issued if those organisations have registered. Not having an access card may be more of an impediment than it may seem at first blush. The inability to enter the inner sanctum of the European Parliament may prevent access to a relevant MEP.
In particular, when dealing with the EU institutions, registrants must not, for example, take the following actions:
- Obtain or try to obtain information dishonestly or inappropriately
- Induce MEPs to breach the rules and standards of behaviour applicable to them
- If employing former MEPs, disrespect the obligation of such employees to abide by the relevant rules