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12th Aug 2022

EU revolving door is lightning rod for populists, says NGO

  • Former EU commission president Barroso now works for Goldman Sachs (Photo: Portuguese EU presidency 2007)

The EU's failure to stop former European Commission staff and MEPs from working as lobbyists has boosted populist movements around Europe, says Brussels-based NGO Transparency International.

"This is an issue that really can't be ignored because it has become a lightening rod for popular discontent," Carl Dolan, director of TI's Europe office, told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (31 January).

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The revolving door, where politicians or officials leave their posts to then lobby on the same issue they legislated on, has emboldened populist movements and their leaders in France, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, he said.

One EU commission official went on a sabbatical leave and now works for a major Saudi oil firm. EU sabbaticals, while unpaid, can last 15 years and pose larger questions on how sincere the EU institutions are in their stated aim to rein in abuse.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the former president of the EU commission, now works at Goldman Sachs.

The move riled his former employees and pushed the EU commission to extend its 18-month cooling-off period for commissioners to two years and to three years for its president, but sanctions against Barroso are unlikely.

No such rules apply to MEPs, who are also entitled to hold second or third jobs while in office, although paid professional lobbying directly linked to the Union decision-making process is, since January, explicitly prohibited. Their assistants are subjected to two-year cooling off restrictions.

Dolan warned against what he described as complacency at the EU commission and EU parliament to dismiss the issue as a "narrative" that will somehow go away.

"It is not going away, and if we don't see a concerted effort by the institutions to address these issues, put in place the proper regulations and the institutions to deal with it, it is going to come back again and again and haunt them," he said.

He said the EU parliament in "time-honoured fashion, ignores the issue" while the EU commission has "under-regulated" it.

The EU parliament says the question of revolving doors is an issue under discussion.

"We've seen a recent change in the Rules of Procedures this month, which reinforced rules on conflicts of interest and financial declarations for sitting MEPs and stipulated that former MEPs should notify lobbying activities to the EP," said an EP spokesperson in an email.

The EU commission described its rules as "the most demanding, strict rules that you can find".

Canada imposes a five-year cooling off period for MPs.

Lucrative jobs and policy influencing

Dolan's comments followed the release of a 35-page TI report on Tuesday that traces the career paths of 485 members of the European Parliament who left office since the elections in 2009.

It also looks at the 27 EU commissioners who worked under Barroso.

It found that 30 percent of former MEPs and more than 50 percent of former commissioners work for organisations listed in the EU's transparency register for lobbyists.

Not everyone in the register is a lobbyist, however.

"Some of these are board positions with think tanks, universities, NGOs," said co-author of the report, TI's head of advocacy Daniel Freund.

Some MEPs have died or retired. Four MEPs are in jail. But many have been hired to gain influence by lobbying their former colleagues.

Freund said the more worrying cases involved 26 former MEPs who now work for lobbying consultancies in Brussels. "These are clear cut cases where lobbying is the main part of their job description," he said.

Three of them work for global communications agency, Hume Brophy. Another 18 former MEPs work for companies or businesses listed in the register.

The biggest influencer in Brussels is Google, however. The US tech giant has listed 115 revolving door cases in the European Union alone, which also includes people working in offices located in places like Paris and Berlin.

The full results of the study can be found on EU Integrity Watch website.

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