26th Sep 2023

Watchdog calls for tougher curbs on 'problematic' revolving doors

  • The potential 'corrosive effect' of revolving door cases is often underestimated, the EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said (Photo: EU Ombudsman)
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The European Commission should be more transparent and apply stricter curbs when EU officials move on to take private-sector jobs, the EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly concluded on Wednesday (18 May) — after a major inquiry into hundreds of 'revolving doors' cases.

This phenomenon creates a risk of conflicts of interest as EU personnel's previous status, contacts and insider knowledge can benefit their new employers — and thus undermines public trust in EU institutions.

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  • Inquiries conducted by the EU Ombudsman in 2021 (Photo: EU ombudsman)

The EU's watchdog launched its inquiry in May 2021, reviewing 100 personnel files where the EU Commission approved the transfer requests of senior and mid-level managers into new employment or unpaid leave to undertake another job, mainly in 2019 and 2020.

Of these 100 decisions, the EU commission prohibited a former staff member from taking on a private sector job only on two occasions.

The investigation covered 14 of the 33 directorate-generals, all commissioner cabinets, the commission's legal service, its secretariat-general, its internal think-tank and the regulatory scrutiny board.

O'Reilly warned the movement of EU officials into sectors which they previously regulated has become "problematic" in Brussels — the second biggest lobbying centre in the world after Washington.

"Without a more robust approach to the movement of staff to the private sector, the European Commission risks undermining the integrity of the EU administration," the ombudsman said, arguing that the potential "corrosive effect" is often underestimated.

"The EU commission has to take this seriously because if it doesn't, then it becomes endemic," she added.

In her recommendations, O'Reilly said the commission should forbid former staff members from taking up positions temporarily when the risks, such as a potential conflict of interest, cannot be offset with restrictions — and set out clear criteria for when it will forbid such exodus.

She also called on the EU executive to make the approval of a new job conditional upon, for example, publishing restrictions on the website of the new employer or alongside the staff member profile.

In the first instance, the commission should ask former staff members to prove that the restrictions imposed on all post-service activities were shared with the new employee, the ombudsman said.

Last year, O'Reilly urged the commission president Ursula von der Leyen to monitor whether former commissioner Günther Oettinger is complying with the conditions placed on him when working at a consultancy, which has a tobacco company as one of its largest clients.

Under the commission restrictions, Oettinger was not allowed to help the consultancy or its clients directly or indirectly lobby the EU executive.

But many EU commissioners and even the most senior EU officials have made similar career moves in the past.

In former probes related to former officials from the European Banking Authority and the European Defence Agency, O'Reilly found that both should have been temporarily forbidden.

Additionally, the ombudsman has called on the commission to be more transparent over EU officials moving on to take private-sector jobs, publishing their decision shortly after they are taken.

"The problem is there's a huge lag. Sometimes [it takes] up to two years, between the decision being made and it being published," O'Reilly told a press briefing in Brussels on Wednesday.

Now the EU commission will have six months to respond to the EU ombudsman.

Annual review

Last year, the EU ombudsman received 2,166 complaints of which nearly one-third were related to the transparency and accountability of Brussels institutions.

As a result, the watchdog launched a total of 338 inquiries — of which six were on her own initiative.

This includes investigations into delays by the EU commission on access to documents requests, the European Medicine Agency's refusal to publish documents related to vaccines, Frontex's accountability mechanisms, and the legitimacy of the public consultation on the Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative.

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