Thursday

13th May 2021

Investigation

EU institution beset by harassment claims

  • The European Economic Social Committee is a consultative body, based in Brussels. It issues non-binding opinions on law and policy (Photo: EU)

The EU's smallest institution is embroiled in controversy after perceived threats to dismantle internal checks-and-balances, as serious allegations of harassment have been left festering.

Caught in the mix is the Italian national Gianluca Brunetti, who on Tuesday (24 September) may officially become the next secretary general of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), a Brussels-based institution with a €136.5m annual budget tasked to issue opinions on EU law and policy.

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"There is fear, there is a culture-of-fear at the European Economic and Social Committee," said a source with direct knowledge of the issue, who asked to remain anonymous given possible work recriminations.

EUobserver has spoken to five people within the institution - who all laid out a similar vision of a work environment that has been rendered all the more difficult amid lingering claims of harassment and power capture.

Brunetti's probationary appointment to the role as secretary general was made in a behind-closed door meeting in Bucharest last November - and has since been met with a raft of staff criticisms.

It also came amid suggestions that Jacek Krawczyk, a senior Polish member at the heart of the harassment accusations, and who is slated to become the next EESC president, is being protected.

Those suggestions include the English-language interpretation of Brunetti, during a hearing at the European Parliament, denying any knowledge of harassment cases in the EESC over the course of 2018 - despite numerous complaints filed directly with him.

"In the Olaf report we talk about harassment in 2017, as for 2018, as I have said, we are in a situation where we are not actually aware of any cases of harassment, but we are keeping a close eye on the situation," he told MEPs on 27 November 2018, speaking in non-native French.

Although he does mention the year 2018 in French, Brunetti's office told this website that the statement is in fact wrong, and that he was only talking about 2017.

At the time, Brunetti was heading the human resources department, a task that included receiving and listening to whistleblowers who say they had endured psychological and verbal attacks within the institution.

'Toothless' code of conduct

Since the start of this year, he has been on a nine-month probationary period as secretary general, a procedural requirement before the Bureau possibly rubber stamps his official position.

Although the Bureau's draft agenda does not list Brunetti's name, EUobserver has been informed that it will be discussed as another point of order on Tuesday.

Under Brunetti's watch, the EESC cobbled together a code-of-conduct before the summer, in response to a slew of harassment revelations last year, and the launch of a wider probe into the abuse by the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf.

Some members of the EESC have since refused to sign the code, given its shaky legal basis and what they describe as slap-on-the-wrist sanctions for offenders.

"I have never seen an institution adopt such an important document without having the opinion of the legal service," Cristiano Sebastiani, who presides over an EESC staff union known as R&D, told EUobserver.

Brunetti's office said the decision to have no legal opinion on the code of conduct was in fact a decision that had been made by the plenary assembly in February.

But that decision was based on assurances by the EESC president that legal clarifications would be sorted before demanding people to sign it, which never happened.

The EESC's legal service is itself facing an existential crisis given internal moves by Brunetti to replace it with an adviser linked directly to his new office as secretary general.

Staff unions over the summer revolted at the proposal, drafted as a work structure chart and seen by this website, and whose adoption was repeatedly delayed throughout May and June.

"We see that it is meant to be for adoption and at the same time for his appointment as well. For us, it is very worrying," said a second source, noting that the issue may have since evolved.

Brunetti's office argues the move was meant to improve efficiency "by providing the EESC legal service with a wider vision, knowledge and understanding of the files to be treated."

Disappearing report?

Brunetti ascended to the secretary general post after the previous person took up a ministerial job at the Spanish government early last year.

Although numerous candidates had applied, it is said that Brunetti's name was the only one shortlisted by the selection panel, in a move described as highly unusual.

The EESC presidency cabinet did not respond to EUobserver when asked if this was indeed the case and Brunetti's office said the selection was run according to the rules and procedures in place.

With his nine-month probationary period now coming to an end, staff procedures also require a written report detailing any achievements or failings during his time as secretary general.

It is on the basis of this report that the Bureau is supposed to decide on whether to anoint Brunetti in his new job title.

But sources say that the report, which had been made available to a select number of people, has since disappeared, posing questions on whether it has been shuffled away due to a negative evaluation.

Asked to comment, Brunetti's office said internal rules and EU staff regulations were being followed.

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