18th Mar 2018

Commission's new ethics code won't stop abuses, critics say

  • Hoedeman: 'Basically this is saying that it's okay to lobby' (Photo: Thomas Hawk)

Scandals over ex-commissioners heading off to plum lobbying jobs will keep happening despite a revision of the EU executive's ethics code, say transparency campaigners.

In the wake of a string of 'revolving door' scandals in 2009, where half a dozen former commissioners went on to well-paid executive positions with lobbying outfits, banks and airlines, the European Commission promised a new code of conduct for the institution.

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In one instance, Germany's ex-commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, even set up his own lobbying outfit.

A draft of the new code of conduct seen by EUobserver declares itself to be in the vanguard of public office ethics best practice.

"The draft reflects best practices in the field of ethics regulations for public office holders and provides for the highest standards of ethical integrity," reads a letter accompanying the new code from commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

For the first time, lobbying is explicitly mentioned in the text.

Under the new code, for 18 months after the end of their term, ex-commissioners "may not lobby nor advocate with members of the commission and their staff for her/his business, client or employer on matters for which they have been responsible within their portfolio."

However, the code does not expressly say that former commissioners may not take up lobbying jobs after that period, merely that such a move should precipitate an investigation by the commission's in-house three-man-strong ethical committee.

If the job an ex-commissioner takes up is "related to the content of the portfolio of the commissioner, the commission shall seek the opinion of the ad hoc ethical committee."

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.

Additionally, in cases of potential conflict of interest while still in office, commissioners will now have their dossiers taken over by a colleague.

Transparency campaigners complain that these changes are merely cosmetic and will not stop cases of revolving doors.

"The new code says that the ethical committee will look into cases where commissioners are lobbying in areas related to their former portfolios," complained a disappointed Olivier Hoedeman, of Alter-EU, the alliance for lobbying transparency. "Basically this is saying that it's okay to lobby if it's not related."

"But in any case, as part of the whole college of commissioners, they are responsible for many more issues than just those that fall within their narrow portfolio."

"Under this wording, Verheugen's lobbying firm would be given a green light," he added.

The group also worries that the new rules do not include any definition of what constitutes lobbying. Without any definition against which commissioners' activities can be compared, the ethics committee is left to interpret itself what lobbying is. "And up to now, the ad hoc committee has been pretty easy-going in its interpretations of what is ethical," said Mr Hoedeman.

Administration commissioner Maros Sefcovic last autumn promised the European Parliament that under the new code, the three-man ad hoc ethical committee would be expanded and their findings and the justification for them would now be published. Currently, the committee meets behind closed doors and the justification for its decisions remains secret.

However, the draft makes no mention of any expansion of the committee or whether its deliberations would be made public.

"The ethical committee at the moment is a group of insiders. Instead, the committee should be composed of national ethics regulators and academics that specialise in public office ethics," Mr Hoedeman said.

Alter-EU is calling on the European Parliament to close the loopholes in the new code. But there are concerns over the process of the re-drafting of the code as well.

The parliament's Budget Control Committee had understood that it would receive the proposals for the new code from the commission and then develop a report and amend the text. The document would have to receive the imprimatur of both the committee and a full sitting of the parliament.

Instead, the commission has sent the text directly to the president of the chamber, Jerzy Buzek, and the committee is worried that the EU executive may attempt to by-pass the chamber and push for a rubber-stamping of the new code by the parliament's Conference of Presidents - the body bringing together President Buzek and the chairs of the different political groups.

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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