Sunday

9th May 2021

Opinion

How to fix the EU 'revolving door'

  • The EU taxpayer is topping up Barroso's Goldman Sachs fee (Photo: epp.eu)

There were howls of indignation across Europe after former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso’s spectacularly ill-timed announcement that he is to join Goldman Sachs as a non-executive chairman and adviser on Brexit.

These cries of foul will only grow louder and more frequent in the coming years. The numbers of revolving door cases between the public sector and private consultancy has been climbing in Europe and beyond.

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  • Michel Petite (c), went from top Commission lawyer to top tobacco firm lobbyist (Photo: European Commission)

In the US, for example, in 1974, 3 percent of retiring senators went on to become lobbyists. In 2012, nearly half of them did.

There is no turning back this trend, in part due to the fact our leaders are getting younger and finding themselves out of office at an age when most people are at the peak of their careers.

Former British PM David Cameron, now licking his wounds on the backbenches, is 49. Barack Obama will be 55 when he vacates the White House next year. Matteo Renzi, who may see his premiership derailed by yet another referendum this autumn, is 41.

They are unlikely to content themselves with decades of golf and after-dinner speeches.

'Cooling off' not the issue

The other driver is the professionalisation of politics.

The multiplication of special adviser and political communications posts means that more and more people come to cabinet or other front bench positions from the consultancy sector.

When their political careers end, they have both the background and the ready made networks to return there to sell their “strategic advice”.

The phenomenon is here to stay, which means that conflicts of interest need to be rigorously policed.

Much of the focus in the Barroso case has been on the “cooling off” periods between leaving office and taking up a private sector post.

This is just 18 months for former commissioners, in contrast to the five-year ban that applies to cabinet ministers in, for instance, Canada. But it still looks almost stringent in comparison to the complete absence of cooling off periods for MEPs.

The Commission must revisit these rules. However, debates about whether 18 months, or two years, or five years is the right figure sidetrack us from the real issue: what can the Commission do to sanction former staff who compromise its integrity.

In Barroso’s case, the announcement that he will cash in on Brexit would not have been in any better taste after 24 rather than 20 months.

Barroso's judgement

First, there needs to be an element of due process rather than the trial by media often occasioned by these scandals.

This means a rapid decision by the Commission’s ethics committee on this and any new move.

But rather than the current old boys’ club appointed by commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, this body should be a reformed, truly independent committee whose meetings, decisions and reasoning are a matter of public record.

Second, if this committee finds there has been a breach of the standards of integrity and discretion demanded of former commissioners by the founding EU treaties, it should be able to propose meaningful sanctions.

In cases like this, where public service is being monetised, the obvious answer is to hit them in the pocket.

At a minimum, this means the suspension of “transition allowances” where former commissioners are paid up to 60 percent of their old salary. Removing this would at least avoid making the European taxpayer top up a generous Goldman Sachs stipend.

More importantly, officials who breach ethics standards should not be able to lobby without consequences. Should the ethics committee find against him, it should be clear that Barroso is not welcome to meet EU officials in his new capacity.

This should be part of a more general policy that lobbyists who do not play by the rules, whether by refusing to sign up to the EU lobby register or by breaching the Commission’s own standards of integrity, are denied access.

This would be a powerful sanction that would make both former Commissioners and those who hire their services think carefully about the value of such transactions.

Given the recent history of the EU and his part in it, it is not clear what Barroso was thinking in accepting this offer. As a former Maoist, perhaps he had in mind the Chinese leader’s dictum that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos: the situation is excellent”.

It does however demonstrate the main risk of the revolving door: that political judgement is skewed by considerations of personal advantage.

In an age when euroscepticism has begun to pose an existential threat to the EU, that needs to be dealt with forcefully by the Commission, which has the most to lose from the career ambitions of its former figureheads.

Carl Dolan is director of the Transparency International's liaison office to the European Union

Disclaimer

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

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