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Jim Murray: Some MEPs work very hard

21 Jan, 14 | by BMJ

jim_murrayI sometimes feel sorry for MEPs, and not just at Christmas. I’m thinking of those who do a good job as rapporteur on important dossiers, such as the revision of the Clinical Trials Directive. They put this on their website and in their press releases, but in most cases their constituents have no idea what it means. “What is it you were? A rapporteur?  That’s nice,” is the most common response, if there is a response.

The job of a rapporteur is to steer legislation through the European Parliament in much the same way as a minister steers legislation through a national parliament, but the rapporteur does not have a government department for support or a governing majority. MEPs belong to different political groups, but there are no government and opposition parties in the parliament.

Rapporteurs take a proposal from the commission, and analyse it with a small team of assistants. Proposals can be extremely technical—as is often the case with chemicals, tax, medicines, financial regulation, and so on. They may have to seek expert help, but rapporteurs remain responsible for preparing a report and drafting amendments for a parliament committee.

Rapporteurs from other political groups (“shadow rapporteurs”) propose their own amendments and the main rapporteur has to consult with the shadows in the hope of reaching agreement. Ultimately the committee votes up or down on the amendments. Later there is a vote in the full parliament where again the rapporteur has to negotiate with the other political groups to seek agreement, or majority support, for the rapporteur’s favoured amendments.

The council (28 governments) will have their own views on the proposal and the parliament, council, and commission usually have to get together in a “trilogue” to reach agreement on a final text. The rapporteur leads the negotiations for the parliament, based on an agreed mandate.

Given the importance of rapporteurs, they are a magnet for many of the twenty thousand or so lobbyists based in Brussels (and in the rapporteur’s home country). About seventy staff of pharmaceutical companies have access passes to the European Parliament, with far greater numbers back in their offices and in consultancies acting on their behalf.

Although not all-powerful, rapporteurs can “set the agenda” for the European Parliament, by choosing expert advice and writing the first draft of a parliament opinion. They have more power and responsibility than most members of national parliaments.

I don’t feel sorry for all rapporteurs, and certainly not for those who simply let an industry group write their reports, saving themselves time and thought. It can happen.

It did not happen with the revision of the Clinical Trials Directive where Glenis Willmott was the rapporteur. The proposal itself ran to 107 pages, plus 127 pages of impact assessments. Her first report ran to 52 pages with 74 amendments, but a total of 731 amendments were submitted to the main committee voting on the proposal. Her task was to decide which amendments to back, not just on the basis of what was good, but on what was possible in negotiations with her fellow MEPs, and with the council, and commission. I don’t think she got all she wanted, and I would have liked to have seen more on academic and post marketing trials, but the final text is potentially a great advance for transparency, and more than I believed to be possible a year ago. Rapporteurs matter.

Competing interests: I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.

Jim Murray is a former director of BEUC the European Consumers Organisation, having previously been the first director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade in Ireland. He writes here in a personal capacity. During his time with BEUC, he was a founder and one time president of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. Currently he is a member of the European Commission’s high level group on administrative burdens, and president of the European Foundation for Financial Inclusion.

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