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15th Apr 2024

'Unethical' EU commissioners to face public shame

  • Former EU commission president Barroso (r) landed a job at Goldman Sachs (Photo: European Commission)

European commissioners that breach conflict of interest rules will be reprimanded in public.

The move is part of a new code of conduct the EU executive says is needed to prevent major embarrassments, such as the Barroso Goldman Sachs affair.

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On Wednesday (31 January), commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen told reporters that the new code applies to every commissioner under Jean-Claude Juncker's stewardship.

"This new code takes affect as of today and as applicable to all current members of the Juncker commission in line with Juncker's push for greater transparency," he said.

The code follows a scandal when the former president of the European Commission, Jose Barroso, landed a job at investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Barroso was hired just days after the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. Goldman Sachs tasked him to help buffer clients from a Brexit fallout.

The US investment bank was instrumental in triggering a major financial crisis in Europe during Barroso's ten-year commission president term.

Critics accused him of being part of a 'revolving door' syndrome, where a politician or official leaves their posts to then lobby on the same issue they legislated on.

When Barroso brushed of criticism that he was putting business ahead of politics, a public uproar ensued, including from thousands of staff within the European Commission.

A separate case a year later saw former competition and digital commissioner, Nellie Kroes, in another scandal. Kroes joined the advisory board of the US car-sharing firm Uber after leaving the commission.

But she had also failed to declare an offshore company and its earnings when becoming competition chief in 2004.

'I don't get your point'

Katainen appeared to stall when asked by a reporter if a public reprimand under the new codes is enough to prevent a Kroes and Barroso repeat.

"I'm sorry I don't get your point. As a commission we must take care of the credibility of institutions," he said.

"These issues cannot be dealt with a populist approach," he added.

A new "independent ethics committee" will be tasked to issue recommendations. Those recommendations may push the commission to then express a reprimand and make it public.

But Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a Brussels-based pro-transparency NGO, says the new committee has no real powers and keeps the current culture of self-policing on ethics issues.

"These changes will not prevent new revolving door scandals from happening and fail to meet the demands made by MEPs, EU officials and citizens after the Barroso scandal," said CEO campaigner Margarida Silva, in an emailed statement.

Commissioners with now have to declare investments above €10,000.

Those leaving and seeking a new job will have to wait two years in what is also referred to as a "cooling off period". The period for a European commission president will be three years.

But Emily O'Reilly, the EU ombudsman, said some new positions might still pose problems regardless of the new cooling off periods.

"Some new positions may still infringe the treaty obligation to act with discretion and integrity, even after two or three years have passed. These new positions need a case-by-case analysis," said her office, in an emailed statement.

O'Reilly is set to publish in February an in-depth analysis of the new code of conduct rules.

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