European Parliament Rebukes Three Regulatory Agencies

The European Parliament yesterday postponed signing off on the 2010 expenditures of three science-related E.U. agencies amid concerns over conflicts of interest and inappropriate spending.

The vote to postpone the so-called discharge—which affects the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and the European Environment Agency (EEA)—has no immediate consequences, but it is seen as a warning that the agencies need to restore their credibility. It came 2 days after EFSA's head resigned effective immediately because she had returned to her job at an industry-funded group.

The agencies, which provide the European Commission with scientific advice, have been under fire from members of the European Parliament for several years for being too close to industry and other parties. Because the Parliament has little control over them, members have used their right to withhold approval of past spending as a way to express their discontent and put pressure on the agencies.

The Parliament also refused to sign off on EMA's books last year, mainly because of the agency's role in the scandal over the French diabetes drug Mediator. EMA's attempts to better itself didn't convince a majority of Parliament. In December 2011, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation, a coalition of civil society groups, revealed that former EMA director Thomas Lönngren allegedly set up a private consultancy in November 2010 while still in office. Lönngren also joined a lobbying firm immediately after leaving EMA in December 2010.

The vote against EEA was because its director, Jacqueline McGlade, used over €30,000 from the EEA's 2010 budget to fund research trips by Earthwatch, an environmental group, to the Caribbean and Mediterranean. At the time of that decision, McGlade was also a board member of Earthwatch. She left that group in April 2011 following advice from the European Court of Auditors.

As to EFSA, the European Parliament cited the case of Diána Bánáti, who stepped down from her position 2 days ago after announcing that she would become executive and scientific director of the Brussels-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Four other EFSA members also hold outside positions that some say present potential conflicts. EFSA renewed its conflict-of-interest rules in March, but the Parliament still finds them wanting.

The votes to withhold approval were proposed by Monica Macovei, a center-right member from Romania who served as the parliament's rapporteur for the issue. On her blog (written in Romanian), Macovei calls the decision "a major success for the proper management of conflicts of interest." Macovei is a longtime anticorruption campaigner whose tactics have garnered praise as well as criticism. An aide to Dutch liberal member Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy says that Macovei applies a "prosecutor mentality, which results in suggestive reporting." The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, of which Gerbrandy is a member, voted with Macovei on EFSA's budget, but disagreed on the other two agencies.

The European Parliament will vote on the three budgets again in October; it has asked the agencies to come up with stricter and more transparent conflict-of-interest policies first.

The European Court of Auditors in Brussels is currently investigating EFSA's conflicts of interest; it expects to send its findings to the European Anti-Fraud Office before summer. The audit and its recommendations are widely seen as vital for EFSA's future credibility.