23rd Mar 2018

EU commission probed over 'revolving door' allegations

  • Insider networks and contacts potentially give rise to conflicts of interest at the European Commission (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU ombudsman on Thursday (14 February) launched an inquiry into the alleged failure of the European Commission to prevent conflicts of interest.

The probe follows a complaint filed by a handful of pro-transparency groups in October 2012.

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The NGO watchdogs say former commission staff is sometimes shuffled into powerful consultancy firms and then lobby on issues they had previously worked on while at the EU institution.

“Many lobby consultancies headhunt commission staff because they provide them with invaluable inside knowledge and contacts,” said Rachel Tansey of the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).

The CEO campaigner said the profit-making strategy behind the headhunts is “one the commission cannot afford to ignore.”

In other cases, lobbyists are hired to work and provide input into policy-decision making like in expert groups set up to advise the commission.

Existing EU staff regulations and rules are either too weak or poorly implemented to stop the practice, also known as the ‘revolving door’, say the NGOs.

The CEO, along with Greenpeace, Lobbycontrol and Spinwatch, submitted the 51-page complaint. Tansey told this website that the commission had previously responded to the allegations, but found no problems.

“So as far as they're concerned, there's nothing more to say on those cases - which is why we took them to the Ombudsman, as we disagree,” said Tansey in an email.

The Brussels-based auditor said they have asked the commission to hand over the relevant files outlined in the complaint before launching a full-blown investigation.

The inquiry requires the executive to reveal all ‘revolving door’ cases for the past three-years.

Jorgo Riss, director at Greenpeace EU, welcomed the move.

“For too long, the commission has turned a blind eye to the conflicts of interest that can arise when EU bureaucrats change job to become lobbyists, or when lobbyists start working in the EU administration,” said Riss in a statement.

The watchdogs detailed examples where staff have either breached the rules or where the commission failed to properly inform the outgoing staff of their obligations.

Among the 10 names to be handed over to the ombudsman is Pablo Asbo.

Asbo worked in the commission’s competition directorate for six years until he moved to a senior position at the Brussels-based Avisa Partners consultancy firm in March 2011.

The NGOs said there should have been a ‘cooling off’ period between the time he left the commission and when he started his new job. They also say the commission was not proactive in reprimanding Asbo for not notifying his former paymaster about the type of work he was hired to do.

The commission sent Asbo a letter in November 2011, after the NGOs pushed the issue in September, informing him that he was banned from working on a number of files at Avisa.

The watchdogs say Asbo was given ample opportunity to lobby on the same files he worked on at the commission up until the notification months after he was hired.

Avisa maintains that Asbo has not worked on any of the banned company files but says on its website that “we rarely assume prima facie that there is no risk of conflict.”

For its part, the European Commission says its has responded numerous times to the cases brought forward by the NGOs.

“We have no doubt that the European Ombudsman will be able to quickly verify that there is no bad commission administration in the management of these files,” said commission spokesperson Frederic Vincent.

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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