A conversation with TI EU: improving the accountability and integrity of the EU institutions

We meet in the heart of Brussels, in an office buzzing with energy. Around eight young-ish people are hard at work to promote more transparency and less corruption in policymaking in Europe. The rest of the fifteen-strong team are busy holding lobbying meetings across the EU bubble.

TI EU’s office is just a stone’s throw away from the main objects of its attention: the European Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the other European institutions. We’re speaking with Carl Dolan, until last year director of TI EU, and Michiel van Hulten, who took over the baton from Carl. It’s been a few months since Carl stepped down and the staff gives him a warm welcome, complete with hugs, before we can retreat to a quiet room for our conversation.

Personal motivations

Carl is Irish, a factor that has had considerable influence on him in choosing this line of work. In particular, the effect subsequent financial crises (such as the Euro-crisis) had on the Republic motivated him to study policy and decision-making at the political level. “People were hit hard by budget cuts, and for them the financial crisis was not an abstract thing, but daily reality.”

“These financial crises implied an injustice I never thought I would experience when I was going to university. Middle-class Europeans suddenly found themselves facing the prospect of a future where they might not be able to live the lifestyle or have the income or security that their parents had.

“When you talk to citizens, their main questions were who decides what, and what happens when you make the wrong decisions.”

In fact, for many people, myself included, it was the first time they began to question European institutions and how they were operating. When you talk to citizens, their main questions were who decides what, and what happens when you make the wrong decisions. These are very concrete questions and we try to clarify the answers to these questions. That is the accountability part of our work.”

Michiel is a strong believer in Europe as a political project. And in order for that project to be successful you need credible institutions that are viewed as being legitimate by the general public. “The institutions will only acquire legitimacy if they work according to the highest standards of integrity and accountability. I have always seen the fight for political integrity within the institutions as a way to make them stronger, more credible and in the end more effective in delivering for European citizens. As TI EU, we are politically neutral, neither left nor right, but we do want to make the policymaking credible and effective and ensure that it’s in the general public’s best interest. This is the motivation driving our political integrity work.”

Communications

One of TI EU’s main challenges is how to be critical of the institutions without undermining political support for the European project. “In order to clean up the institutions and make sure they work well, you often have to be critical of them. Some people may interpret this as an attack on the European project. It’s a narrow road we have to navigate,” Michiel says.

“Communications is a challenge.”

Carl confirms this. “Communications is a challenge. One of the most effective tools in the toolbox is the ability to go public with criticism but you should be very careful how you employ that tool. It’s a common dilemma in anti-corruption work: every time you expose a scandal or even a flaw, this exposure harms people’s faith in democracy in a more general sense.”

Results and wins

And they are seeing some results. According to Michiel, “The Commission has really changed the way it works, although it is still far from perfect. There is more introspection on better regulation and being much more critical about what kinds of laws we are adopting, how we are adopting them and the impact they have. This critical self-reflection was largely absent twenty years ago.”

TI EU’s work has led to other wins as well: new legislation was introduced that required the oil and gas industry to publish their payments to governments around the world, and the EU has adopted a directive that shields whistleblowers from retaliation. Legislation has also been put in place to fight money laundering, and to ensure that lobbying is more open and transparent. In broader terms, issues of political integrity have risen to the top of the agenda. Twenty years ago, these issues didn’t really play a role, and now they are considered to be important.

Lobby

Carl and Michiel clarify that lobbying is a healthy part of the democratic process, where citizens and organizations aim to make their voices heard in the decision-making process. It is also a business and a profession, and this is the side of the lobbying industry that has given it a bad name as it has allowed for some unethical practices. Brussels has been playing catch-up over the past few years by issuing standards and rules that have turned lobbying into a different and more responsible profession.

On relationships with funders

Our conversation moves to the topic of working with funders. “For us,” says Carl, “Adessium’s support is the bedrock underlying what TI EU has achieved. It is significant that you provide core funding, which allows us to plan better, and shift resources when opportunities change. If you’re in it for the long term, then this kind of funding is crucial. This obviously requires a basic amount of trust, and with Adessium, the trust is always there.”

Adessium’s constructive and neutral engagement is considered to be helpful, such as in the case of its recommendation for TI EU to improve its communications, for which Adessium provided additional support. Furthermore, Adessium has prospects of other grantees as well. This is an area that could be even better developed Carl says, “Because you have this broad experience and contact with organizations working on the same issues, you can play a unifying role and foster collaboration.”

Looking forward

Despite the progress that has already been made, TI EU still has a lot of work to do. “We need to address the growing influence of money in politics,” Michiel says, “And since this is a relatively new issue, there are no mechanisms in place yet to stop or regulate it. As TI EU and TI globally, we need to get a better handle on this process and see to what extent it’s possible to regulate these developments.”

Carl is confident about the future. “Michiel has the exact type of experience the organization needs now to take it to the next level.” Michiel adds that one of Carl’s big achievements is the experienced and confident team that TI EU can now build on to face the challenges ahead. We conclude this compelling conversation with this positive view of the future and take a stroll outside, surrounded by the buildings and offices of the institutions that are so closely monitored by TI EU.

About this partner

Transparency International EU’s mission is to prevent corruption and promote integrity, transparency and accountability in EU institutions, policies and legislation. TI EU is part of the global anticorruption movement, Transparency International, which encompasses over 100 chapters all over the world. TI EU leads the movement’s EU advocacy in close cooperation with national chapters worldwide but is particularly involved with the 23 national chapters in EU member states. TI EU and Adessium, one of their core funders, have a longstanding grant relationship.

Carl Dolan became TI EU’s director in 2013 after having worked there since 2011. At the end of last year, Carl left TI EU and became deputy Director & Head of Advocacy at Open Society European Policy Institute. Michiel van Hulten succeeded Carl in 2019 as director. Prior to that, he had been the managing director of VoteWatch Europe, the organization that monitors EU institutions’ decision-making processes. He was also a member of the European Parliament and an official serving the EU Council of Ministers.

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