Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Survey: Half of EU staff 'don't know' ethics rules

  • The Court of Auditors ethics report also recommended that scrutiny of MEPs self-declarations of interest is increased - something the Parliament rejected (Photo: European Parliament)

EU staff need to be better informed about their institutions' rules on ethical behaviour, the European Court of Auditors said in a report published Friday (19 July).

Only about half of staff said in a survey they had either good or in-depth knowledge of their own institution's ethical framework, while less than half said their employer had given them any ethics training.

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  • 80 percent of staff members of the European Parliament said they had never attended any ethics trainings (Photo: European Parliament)

The auditors found, however, that the European Commission, the Council of the EU, and European Parliament had "to a large extent (...) established adequate ethical frameworks with room for improvement".

But it noted that rules alone were not enough.

"Instead, [EU institutions] must support their ambitions by developing an appropriate culture of integrity. Such a culture can only develop if the people working for the organisation are equipped with the necessary ethical skills and knowledge, and if they see the organisation's commitment to ethics," the report noted.

The court - which is not an actual court, but the EU's official audit body - conducted a survey among 798 staff members working at the three institutions, the EU's most important ones.

Staff at the commission were most confident about their knowledge of the ethical framework applicable within their institution: almost 60 percent said they had "good knowledge" of it.

By contrast, only 26 percent of those working in the European Parliament (EP) said the same.

Almost 17 percent of EP staff said they had never heard about an ethical framework, while 55 percent said that had heard about it but did not know much about it.

The staff who said they knew least about ethics also were less exposed to trainings about the issue.

Some 82 percent of EP staff said they had never attended any ethics courses, seminars, or sessions, while half of all commission staff and a third of council staff said they had.

Most respondents to the survey said they would recognise unethical conduct when they saw it, but almost 30 percent of EU staff said they would not feel safe reporting on an ethical issue.

MEPs' assistants

In particular assistants to MEPs were hesitant about reporting ethics issues.

The court theorised that this could be because assistants are often on temporary contracts, as well as depending "in terms of career prospects, on their MEP".

"Reluctance to report ethical issues may also result from a lack of knowledge about the relevant procedures and safeguards," the report said.

They were also asked what they thought of the statement "the ethical culture in my institution is strong".

More than 60 percent of commission staff agreed; 58 percent of council staff did; while less than 50 percent in the EU parliament agreed.

Almost one-in-three EU parliament respondents said they disagreed.

In response to the audit report, all three EU institutions said they were already planning or implementing efforts to improve knowledge of the rules on ethical behaviour.

Conflicts of interests

However, some of the court's other recommendations were rejected.

The court said that the parliament should increase their scrutiny of the conflicts of interest declarations of MEPs.

The Code of Conduct for MEPs established an Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members, which can assess conflict of interest cases at the request of the parliament's president or the MEP in question.

"No other checks on the accuracy and completeness and/or assessment of the MEP's declarations are set out in the parliament's procedures," the court noted.

The court said that the "main safeguard" on the declarations of MEPs was that they were public and could receive "the attention of the stakeholders, the media and the wider public".

This is what happened when EUobserver reported earlier this month potential conflicts of interests among Brexit Party members and the newly appointed members of the parliament's agriculture committee.

"The lack of written standard procedure for checks on members' declarations creates a risk of obligations being interpreted inconsistently, and means that the institution is less likely to identify inaccuracies and other issues before they attract public attention, potentially jeopardising public trust," said the court.

But the EU parliament rejected the recommendation for additional checks.

"Any further-reaching requirements to check accuracy and completeness ex officio would entail the need for significant staff increases and/or investigative powers, none of which are available," said the parliament in its right-of-reply attached to the report.

It said such checks would require up to approximately 60 additional staff members.

"Also, it should be noted that parliament has no powers of investigation over MEPs, who are accountable to the voters, and must respect the free mandate," it added.

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