22nd Jan 2020


There is life after the Commission

  • A previous college of commissioners. "The probability that ex-Commissioners become lobbyists depends significantly on their former policy brief" (Photo: European Commission)

At least 39 percent of Commissioners become representatives of some private interests after leaving the European Commission. They join a company or an interest group association or establish a consulting business of their own.

This is the result of a study 'The Private Interest Representation by former EU Commissioners', scrutinizing the activities of the 92 Commissioners who have retired from the Commission since 1982.*

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The ex-Commissioners use the knowledge and network they have acquired during their term of office. They cash in on the human capital that they have accumulated at the expense of the taxpayers.

The prospect of afterlife, however, may affect their decisions and voting behaviour while they are still at the Commission. It may induce them to be more accommodating towards interest groups. This is why the Commission has adopted a Code of Conduct prescribing a "cooling-off period" during which its retiring members are not supposed to lobby in their former policy field.

Portfolio and nationality

Indeed, as the study shows, the probability that the ex-Commissioners become lobbyists depends significantly on their former policy brief. It is 100 percent if they have been responsible for competition policy, 89 percent for the internal market, 67 percent for economics and finance and 57 percent for agriculture, energy or industry. It is zero for ex-Commissioners who have been in charge of research, education, administrative affairs, health or multilinguism.

The Commissioner's home country also matters. Commissioners from Portugal, Austria, Bulgaria and Malta have the highest propensity to lobby, those from Scandinavia the lowest. The UK comes tenth with a probability of 44 percent.

Another factor is education. Among the ex-Commissioners who have a law degree, 48 percent become lobbyists. This compares with 35 percent for economists and 33 percent for the rest. However, the lawyers are more willing to sign the Commission's register of lobbyists. They seem to consider it more natural to defend special interests.

Commissioners nominated by left wing governments are significantly less likely to represent private interests after they have stepped down. This may be due to their preferences, or they may be less useful as lobbyists. There is no significant difference between conservatives, liberals and independents.

Average retirement age i 58

Age also plays a role. The younger the Commissioner is at the time of leaving the Commission, the larger the probability is that he or she will become a lobbyist. This was to be expected because the older ex-Commissioners are more likely to stop working altogether.

However, a lengthy office term is shown to raise the probability of becoming a private interest representative. On average, Commissioners retire at the age of 58, after six years of office.

The share of ex-Commissioners turning lobbyists does not follow a trend. It rose in 1993-99 but it fell thereafter. The increase in the 1990s may have been due to the fact that the Single European Act (1987) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) introduced qualified majority decisions on many types of regulations. This meant that interest groups could "capture" the Council more easily. The subsequent decline may have been caused by the Commission's Code of Conduct (1999) or by the Eastern enlargement (2004). Eastern Europeans may be less used to lobbying in Brussels.

Cooling-off period extended

The Commission has just extended the "cooling-off period" for retiring Commissioners from 12 to 18 months. However, ex-Commissioners may obtain up to 65 percent of their former salary for three years after leaving, if their income from work stays within specified limits. These times ought to be brought in line.

Moreover, the cooling-off period applies only to lobbying within the ex-Commissioner's former policy brief. Yet the Commission decides collectively. Each Commissioner is entitled to vote on all decisions taken by the Commission. The prospect of becoming a lobbyist may also affect his vote on issues outside his policy brief. The cooling-off period ought to cover all policy fields in which the Commission is active.

Finally, rules should not be set by those who later are to abide by them. If the rules are determined by the Commissioners, they are likely to be biased in their favour. They will not sufficiently restrict the scope for post-Commission lobbying.

As a result, Commissioners give too much support to special interest groups, both before and after retiring from the Commission. The Code of Conduct for former Commissioners ought to be legislated by the Council and the European Parliament or be incorporated in the European Treaties.

* The Private Interest Representation by former EU Commissioners, Review of International Organizations, August 2011.

The writer, a Professor of Economics at the University of Mannheim, is a member of the academic advisory council to Germany's federal economics ministry.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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