Auteur: Benjamin Fox
BRUSSELS - MEPs want to give the European Parliament's committees of inquiry sweeping new powers following a vote in Strasbourg (24 May).
Under the proposals made by David Martin, the British centre-left MEP leading parliament's negotiations on the regulation, committees would be given new powers including the right to conduct on-the-spot investigations at EU and national level, demand access to documents and summon witnesses to give evidence.
Parliament also wants to establish clear sanctions against false testimony, a refusal to appear before the committee and a refusal to grant access to documents.
It wants to work alongside national parliaments in cases where national authorities are being investigated.
Parliament has set up just three committees of inquiry since the provision was introduced in 1995. The most recent one was into the collapse of insurance giant Equitable Life, which reported back in 2007.
Article 226 of the Lisbon Treaty formalises the its right to initiate an inquiry, a right which also applies to national parliaments.
Meanwhile, MEPs want to beef up their powers amid concerns that recent revisions to the European Ombudsman's statute are making him more important than they are in this area.
Parliament is anxious to avoid a repeat of the Equitable Life case where, after an 18-month inquiry, the UK government refused to respond to its complaints leading to questions about the usefulness of the exercise.
The report concluded that: "The committee has very little power: it cannot summon witnesses, there are no consequences, cost or penalty if a possible witness refuses to cooperate with the inquiry, and there are no sanctions for giving false testimony or for refusing to attend or give evidence before the committee."
In a press statement on Thursday, Martin called on member states to back the new investigatory powers.
He noted that the Equitable Life inquiry floundered because "Parliament lacked the ability to get to the truth, because we could not speak to the people involved. Also, we couldn’t ensure access to the right documents and there were no consequences for people not telling us the truth."
It now needs to broker a deal with national governments and the European Commission.
Maros Sefcovic, the commissioner responsible for inter-institutional relations, this week indicated the EU executive is closer to reaching agreement on the file following what he described as "Parliament's readiness to seek a constructive resolution, which is clearly reflected by the set of compromise amendments."
The commission is unwilling to increase parliament's capacity to investigate allegations of internal malpractice, however.
Stating that inquiry committees are "fundamentally a political rather than legal tool at Parliament's disposal," Sefcovic told MEPs the set of investigative tools on their wishlist is "excessive."