Sunday

22nd May 2022

MEPs hold to ransom commission pensions

The European Parliament has voted to hold to ransom some of the money paid out to ex-commissioners until the European Commission revamps its code of conduct to tighten up rules on cases of revolving doors, where retiring commissioners and officials have gone on to well-paid jobs in the private sector in areas close to the dossiers they oversaw when working for the Brussels machine.

Via an amendment tacked on to a motion giving consent to the EU's 2011 budget, the parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to withhold €460,000 from the funds paid out to 16 former commissioners until the EU executive overhauls its code of conduct in the wake of a slew of conflict-of-interest scandals.

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  • Charlie McCreevy: his bank job was the first-ever time the code was enforced (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

A transitional allowance of 50 percent of a commissioner's basic salary is provided for three years after they leave Brussels, amounting to roughly €10,000 a month.

The allowances are not financed by an employment insurance scheme to which the beneficiaries have contributed, but instead paid out of the general EU budget, giving MEPs some financial leverage over the commission.

The €460,000 is a symbolic sum, as the amount due to be doled over to the ex-commissioners next year amounts to a full €1.7 million.

But it is a shot across the bows of the executive, warning that the already-announced code of conduct review must be substantial and result in the code being given real teeth to prevent conflicts of interest and not just be a public relations exercise.

In autumn 2009, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso promised to the parliament that he would launch a major review of the code. The promise was made as part of Mr Barroso's attempt to win re-appointment for a second term.

According to the amendment, originally tabled in the parliament's Budget Committee by the committee co-ordinator for the centre-right European People's Party, German MEP Ingeborg Grassle, the review of the code must be performed in a "structured dialogue" with the parliament and "strengthen requirements regarding work in the private sector after leaving the commission."

Ms Grassle has long been a thorn in the side of the commission, regularly pushing for stricter rules on commissioners' revolving doors cases.

The MEPs are demanding a cooling off period of some years before the commissioners are allowed to take up positions related to their former tasks.

The parliament is also demanding the introduction of a concrete procedure for dealing with conflicts of interest and the establishment by the EU institutions of a joint advisory body on standards in public life.

Currently, an ad hoc committee meets behind closed doors to assess whether commissioners are breaking the code of conduct.

The committee has only once found a commissioner to be in conflict, earlier this month, after it emerged that former internal market and financial services commissioner Charlie McGreevy had taken a job with a British investment bank, NBNK set to profit from the fall-out of the financial crisis.

The parliament also wants substantial penalties imposed for breaches, as well as the introduction of reporting rules.

The funds are to be put into a reserve and will only be unblocked when the commission concedes to the parliament's demands.

However, the passage of the budget was only at a "first reading" stage. The budget bill now passes over to negotiations known as "conciliation" between member states and parliament, giving the commission the chance to apply pressure to have it yanked.

The commission for its part, dismissed parliament's move as redundant, saying the EU executive has always been committed to a stringent review of the current system.

"We have said all along that we were going to complete a review of the code of conduct by the end of the year. We were just waiting until we had reached a framework agreement with the parliament [which sets out how the EU institutions will work together after the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty]," Michael Mann, the commission's spokesman for institutional affairs and ethics issues told EUobserver.

"And we are now really going to get stuck into it now that the framework agreement was agreed yesterday. This has nothing to do with whether any money is withheld."

Yiorgos Vassalos a campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency watchdog, cheered the parliament's move.

"This shows that the commission cannot continue blindly trusting the judgment of ex-commissioners. It must now introduce a cooling-off period to prevent conflicts of interest," he told this website. "This is the only way the Commission can prevent further scandals and start building public confidence.'

"After the common-sense decision to block McCreevy's move to NBNK, the commission must now review decisions made earlier this year without serious scrutiny of conclifts of interest, allowing ex-commissioners Ferrero Waldner, McCreevy and Verheugen to move to Munich Re, Ryanair and Royal Bank of Scotland."

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