Institutional Affairs

Oligarch yachts become no-go area for EU comissioners

11.02.11 @ 01:33

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - The European Commission has barred top officials from taking holidays on oligarchs' yachts and dictators' jets in a new code of conduct. But MEPs, who want more say on the rules, point to shortfalls and loopholes.

  • 'All aboard!' Deripaska's yacht, the Queen K, sailing past Venice. Mandelson was a guest in 2008 (Photo: Daisuke Ido)

The commission unveiled the code on Thursday (10 February) at a meeting with EU parliament chiefs in Brussels, the same week that the French foreign minister and prime minister were caught with egg on their face for accepting luxury trips from Tunisian hardman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak.

In more distant memories, the Barroso I commission was marked by then-trade commissioner Peter Mandelson's 2008 vacation on Russian aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska's 238-foot yacht.

Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in 2005 was dragged before MEPs to say how come free holidays on the boat of Greek shipping billionaire Spiros Latsis did not constitute conflict of interest with his oversight of shipping sector antitrust cases.

Under the new code, commissioners may no longer "accept hospitality except when in accordance with diplomatic and courtesy usage". An EU official said: "This means in a nutshell that commissioners can only accept diplomatic assistance for travel when on official business, but not when they go on holiday."

He added that while it may be common for officials to take skiing holidays with business moguls they know as old friends, in the future even this should be pre-authorised to ensure there is no conflict with their duties.

The 2011 code does not clamp down on 'revolving doors' however, despite a string of embarrassing revelations how Barroso I commissioners segued into lucrative jobs with banks, lobbying outfits and airlines.

The code also avoids definitions of what is 'conflict of interest' or 'lobbying', maintaining a grey area on what kind of activity is to be scrutinised by the commission's ad hoc ethics committee. The three-man-strong committee is to be expanded. But details of its new make-up have not been decided.

Meanwhile, lobbying by ex-commissioners will be permitted so long as they do not lobby people in their old departments.

Show me the money

Despite putting forward the code in the EU parliament's Conference of Presidents, the commission picked a fight with MEPs by rejecting their claim to propose amendments to the new rules.

MEPs present in the room when Mr Barroso presented the rules on Thursday said he seemed "quite open-minded" about parliament's role and even suggested a common code of conduct for all EU institutions. But commission officials took a different line after the meeting ended. "It is our code of conduct. [The parliament] can give their view, but there's no formal method for the parliament to make amendments. We will make the final call," a commission contact said.

Deputies say a recent Framework Agreement governing relations between commission and parliament gives them the right of consultation on the code, involving the possibility to introduce changes into what they see as a commission "proposal." The line is supported by the Greens, the Liberals, the Socialists and some deputies from the centre-right European People's Party.

German Green MEP Rebecca Harms said the commission-exclusive code amounts to a "cosmetic revision" and "simply will not fly."

Parliament wants to tie the commissioners' 'transition allowance' - a stipend of between 40 percent and 65 percent of their €20,278 a month salary paid to help them make the transition from the EU bubble to the outside world - to a cooling-off period in which they would be forbidden from taking incestuous jobs.

But the commission says this would entail "changing an entirely separate piece of legislation."

Paper tiger

Parliament also wants the ethics committee to be staffed with academic experts on public sector ethics rather than commission appointees to guarantee its independence.

But the commission rejects the idea that the internal bureau is biased in its former colleagues' favour. "We ensure their independence by their being independent," the commission official said.

The committee last week was made to look like a paper tiger when senior commission officials overruled its decision that a new lobbying firm set-up by ex-industry commissioner Guenther Verheugen is incompatible with the EU treaty.

The commission powers decided that it is compatible as long as Mr Verheugen avoids professional contact with former colleagues in his department for 26 months from the time he left. The commission also cleared his former lover and cabinet chief, Petra Erler, to join the firm on the same terms.

Mr Verheugen set up The European Experience Company - a lobbying firm specialising in EU affairs - two months after leaving his commission post.