22nd Jan 2020

Brussels revamps code of conduct

  • A string of scandals forced the commission to revamp its ethics code (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission has tightened up its code of conduct banning spouses from commissioners' offices and extending the period EU executive members must request approval from Brussels before taking up new jobs once out of office to a year and a half.

The new rules were agreed by the college of commissioners on Wednesday in the wake of a string of ‘revolving door' scandals in 2009 in which six former commissioners went on to well-paid executive positions with lobbying outfits, banks and airlines.

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In one case, Ireland's ex-commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, responsible for the financial services portfolio, intended to take a job with a start-up UK bank until the EU executive's ethics committee slapped him down.

In another, Germany's former representative in the commission, Guenther Verheugen, launched his own lobbying consultancy, the "European Experience".

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."

Spouses, partners and relatives are also now prevented from working in the offices of commissioners and the ethics committee will have a wider remit.

Gifts in the form of travel or stays in villas or on yachts will also be heavily restricted, with the new code now reading: "Commissioners shall not accept hospitality except when in accordance with diplomatic and courtesy usage."

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

The ethics committee's findings and the justification for them would now also be made public. Currently, the committee meets behind closed doors and the justification for its decisions remains secret.

Transparency campaigners however say that the wording in the new code does not go far enough, arguing that there is still no 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.

They also had wanted to see a "cooling off" period of three years for commissioners after they leave office rather than 18 months.

The commission for its part says it is now at the vanguard of public ethics.

"'I believe that the revised code of conduct ... is among the most rigorous applied to holders of public office," said spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde.

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