Bundestag MPs allowed to vote despite vested interests
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Bundestag MPs allowed to vote despite vested interests

An MP who works for a law firm representing Volkswagen in the emissions scandal voted to remove the item from a parliamentary committee’s agenda. According to the Bundestag, there’s no rule preventing him from doing so.

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German MPs are allowed to vote on decisions in which they may have a direct business interest, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert has confirmed.

Lammert’s statement, made in a nonpublic letter to two Left party MPs, came in response to a row over Stephan Harbarth, a Bundestag member who earns 250,000 euros ($266,000) per year as a board member for a law firm.

Schilling, Zutt and Anschütz was hired by Volkswagen to represent it in the scandal over the emissions software that the German auto giant used to cheat tests in the United States.

In October, Harbarth, a member of the parliament’s committee on law and consumer protection, voted to remove one point from the committee’s agenda, namely: “a government report on the consumer law effects, the civil law claims and the legal consequences of the current VW scandal.”

Although the VW scandal has implications for millions of German consumers, Harbarth – a member of the Christian Democratic Union – voted to remove the item, which other MPs say indirectly benefited his law firm’s client.

No rule to stop him

Last month, Greens MP Nicole Maisch, another member of the consumer protection committee, told “Süddeutsche Zeitung” that Harbarth “should never have been allowed to take part in the vote.” Harbarth has rejected allegations of a conflict of interest on the grounds that he “was not personally involved with the client” of his law firm. He also said he had voted to remove the item from the agenda because there was “no written foundation for a resolution.”

The Bundestag’s authorities have taken his side. In his letter to Caren Lay and Harald Petzold, the Left party MPs on the consumer affairs committee who had asked for a ruling, Lammert wrote that “according to current rules, there are no compelling reasons for suspending the voting rights of an MP in the Bundestag decisions if they can benefit [the MP].”

He also told Lay and Petzold that the Bundestag had considered implementing conflict-of-interest regulations several times before and had rejected the proposals because “in dealing with general laws, (almost) all MPs could be directly affected.”

Lay was not impressed by this response. “Of course, if as an MP I have to decide on a law about mass data storage, let’s say, I’m also affected by it as a German citizen,” she told DW. “But the question is – and that is exactly the point here – whether I have a direct business interest. And apparently the [governing] coalition is refusing such a regulation. … If there was a political will, it would be legally resolvable.”

When contacted by DW, the Bundestag administration refused to comment, on the grounds that the question dealt with decisions on a political level, rather than an administrative one.

In an email, Harbarth wrote that he had “behaved irreproachably”: “Norbert Lammert has confirmed to me today that there is no basis for another assessment.”

Harbarth also accused the Greens and Left MPs of starting a media campaign against parliamentarians who hold private sector jobs in addition to their political responsibilities “because these don’t conform to the parliamentarian type favored by the Greens.” He added: “For me, my professional pillar remains the foundation of my political independence.”

“I think it’s intolerable,” Lay said, “because it means that we have MPs who could let their personal business interests influence their voting habits. And of course that disrupts trust in democracy, because people will think, ‘My god, are all those people up there corrupt?'”

The business-politics revolving door

Anti-corruption organizations have taken a similar view. “This decision is an embarrassment,” said Veronika Nad, coordinator at Blueprint for Free Speech in Germany, an NGO that advocates government integrity and transparency. “It is an open secret that the firewall between politics and business in Germany is more like a sheet of cardboard. This is the most blatant example of conflict of interest and political meddling that one can imagine.”

Nad also thinks that this relaxed attitude to the potential dangers of mixing politics and business is typical for the country. “Germany has finally ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption – and it was actually the last country in Europe to do so – but obviously this has not done much to change business as usual,” she told DW. “It is intolerable that a very few Bundestag members have the power to shut down an inquiry into potential environmental crimes that could harm public health globally.”

The issue of allowing MPs to earn money outside their parliamentary duties has also come under scrutiny recently – according to the “Süddeutsche Zeitung,” Harbarth’s 250,000 euros per year put him in the top 10 highest-earning MPs in Germany. But all regulations have been resisted by parliamentary authorities. “We have made several proposals, all of which were rejected, including a conflict-of-interest rule,” Lay said.