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24th Mar 2019

'Revolving doors' scandals force commission to overhaul code

  • Former internal market commissioner Charlie McCreevy had wanted to take a job with an investment bank (Photo: European Commission)

After a wave of scandals where ex-commissioners left the employ of the EU executive for lucrative positions in the private sector to lobby on behalf of corporations they had only months before been in charge of regulating, the European Commission has unveiled an overhaul of its code of conduct.

Institutional affairs commissioner Maros Sefcovic, the man responsible for ethics affairs in Brussels, on Tuesday (9 November) told the European Parliament's budget control committee a new, revised code of conduct will be imposed by the end of the year.

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Under the envisaged new rules, the period after they leave the EU executive, in which they are currently required to inform the president of the commission about any new jobs will be reviewed and extended beyond the current two years, the commissioner said.

Ex-commissioners will also now not be allowed to lobby other members of the commission or officials in areas related to the portfolio they oversaw while working for the EU executive.

"Members of the Commission shall be independent, they must avoid any conflict of interests and they have to perform their duties with integrity and discretion," he told MEPs.

Share ownership and other non salary revenues will also now fall within the scope of what can be considered a conflict of interest.

Commissioners intending to run in elections, whether for the European Parliament or back home, will now have to take unpaid leave.

In cases of potential conflict of interest while still in office, commissioners will now have their dossiers taken over by a colleague. This reallocation of portfolios would follow a defined procedure that will allow for the identification of cases of conflict of interest.

The declaration of interests made by commissioners will now be revised every year, and spouses, partners and direct family members will be excluded from a commissioner's cabinet.

The commission's ethical committee, the ad hoc, three-man body that considers possible conflict of interest is to be expanded and will now be consulted on general ethical questions. Their findings and the justification for them will now be published. Currently, the committee meets behind closed doors and the justification for its decisions remains secret.

Commissioner in conflict

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

In April, two months after he officially left his Brussels job, former industry comissioner Guenter Verheugen set up a lobbying consultancy firm with the name "The European Experience Company." Austria's Benita Ferrero Waldner, formerly in charge of external relations, meanwhile is now working for insurance company Munich Re and the former maritime affairs commissioner, Joe Borg, from Malta, has joined Fipra, a PR consultancy actively lobbying on maritime issues.

However, one of the key demands of transparency and anti-corruption campaigners, that a specific definition of what constitutes a conflict of interest, went unmet.

Campaigners say that only if there is a clear definition against which the activities of commissioners can be measured, will the era of revolving doors come to an end. Otherwise, a conflict of interest will remain whatever the ad hoc committee says it is.

Transparency groups nevertheless were happy that after years of campaigning over the issue, the changes represented a "real breakthrough".

"For the first time, the commission is no longer in denial that there is a problem with revolving doors. This is a major change from the last commission and even from just a few months ago," Alter-EU's Olivier Hoedeman told EUobserver.

"The commission is clearly reacting to this spate of serious, concrete scandals over the last year."

Alter-EU, the lobbying transparency campaign group, welcomed the proposal to limit the contact of ex-commissioners with former colleagues and explicitly ban lobbying as an activity commissioners will be allowed to engage in after their retirement.

But while direct lobbying will be forbidden, other forms of lobbying, such as advice to firms, delivering up contacts and strategic consulting still appears to be considered acceptable.

"It seems the commission is not inclined to include lobbying advice in this ban, which would be a lost opportunity to effectively curb conflicts of interest and undue influence," said the group in a blog post responding to the commissioner's proposals.

The group also said that while it would be "a step forward" for the ethical committee to have to publish a record of its deliberations, an expansion of the ethical committee is less important than a change in its composition, which the group feels is too corporate-friendly, and chaired by a former commission official that has himself "gone through the revolving door."

Alter-EU said that the committee should be composed of independent academic experts on public administration ethics and national ethics regulators.

Mr Sefcovic's speech also made no mention of specific sanctions that could be applied in cases of conflict of interest.

The commission will now draft the new code and present it to the college of commissioners for consideration on 18 November. The revision will then be finalised the beginning of December.

German centre-right MEP Ingeborg Graessle and Belgian Green Left deputy Bart Staes said that the European parliament must first see the written proposals and give its approval.

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