The European Elections: Corporate world keeps watch on fate of its political consultants: MEPs' interests are less rigorously monitored than at Westminster. Leonard Doyle reports

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The Independent Online
JUST OVER a week before polling begins, voters and politicians are showing little interest in wider European aspects of the election.

But for multinational companies worried about European legislation that increases their costs, or public relations companies representing everything from countries with poor human rights records to the tobacco and drinks industry, the election results are extremely important.

They will determine whether the many MEPs already on company payrolls as consultants get re-elected, or whether they have to go out and recruit newly-elected MEPs to serve as their eyes and ears inside the European power system.

Many MEPs supplement their already generous salaries and considerable travel and secretarial expenses by signing on as paid consultants for outside interests. They have extensive contractual links with the defence industry, electronics and telecommunications, drug producers, food manufacturers and the road and construction lobby, to name but a few.

One sitting British MEP, running for office again this time, is reputed to have a sliding scale of charges for companies wanting to influence legislation as it passes through the European Parliament's lengthy approval process.

'He has one charge for tabling questions, another for faxing back details on a company query,' said Richard Tomlinson, Labour MEP for Birmingham West, who has campaigned in vain for full disclosure of members' outside interests. 'The whole idea of asking questions for cash is a democratic affront.'

Thanks in part to the efforts of British MEPs, the European Parliament has a mandatory register of MEPs' interests. However, many do not bother to declare them, and when they do, they are often written in an illegible scrawl and in only one of the EU's nine working languages. There is no system of disciplining those who fail to fill in the register.

The information is stored in a large trunk at the Parliament's administrative headquarters in Luxembourg and is for all practical purposes inaccessible to the public.

Those MEPs who take the trouble to record their interests openly, robustly defend their payments as consultants as an essential part of the life of the Parliament.

Caroline Jackson, the Conservative MEP for Wiltshire, said there was no conflict of interest between her membership of the board of Peugeot Talbot (UK) Ltd, her paid consultancy with Mars, Market Access International and Brewers' Society.

'I always make it absolutely crystal clear my first obligation is to the people who elected me, the others come second,' she said.

Bryan Cassidy, Conservative MEP for Dorset East, said lobbying was 'part of the democratic process' and links to the business world were vital when dealing with legislation that was badly drafted.

The recent success of the Motor Cycle Action Group in persuading parliamentarians to reject legislation limiting the size of motorcycles to less than 150 brake horsepower, is a case in point, he said. The British motorcycle industry would have been badly affected had it gone through.