22nd Oct 2016


How to fix the EU 'revolving door'

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

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • 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


Europe ready to tackle Greek debt relief

The Greek government has built and broadened alliances in EU institutions and member-states that acknowledge the need to restructure the debt and deliver another economic model for the eurozone.

News in Brief

  1. Canada and Wallonia end talks without Ceta deal
  2. Juncker hopes for Canada accord in 'next few days'
  3. Romania drops opposition to Ceta
  4. Difficulties remain on Ceta deal, says Walloon leader
  5. Brexit could lead to 'some civil unrest' in Northern Ireland
  6. ECB holds rates and continues quantitive easing programme
  7. Support for Danish People's Party drops, poll
  8. Spain's highest court overturns Catalan ban on bullfighting

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFADraft Bill for a 2nd Scottish Independence Referendum
  2. UNICEFCalls on European Council to Address Plight of Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ECTAJoin us on 9-10 November in Brussels and Discover the new EU Digital Landscape
  4. Access NowCan you Hear me now? Verizon’s Opportunity to Stand for Global Users
  5. Belgrade Security ForumMeaningful Dialogue Missing Not Only in the Balkans, but Throughout Europe
  6. EASPDJoin the Trip! 20 Years on the Road. Conference & Photo Exhibition on 19-21 October
  7. EuropecheEU Fishing Sector Celebrates Sustainably Sourced Seafood in EU Parliament
  8. World VisionWomen and Girls Urge EU Leadership to Help end Gender-based Violence
  9. Dialogue PlatformIs Jihadism Blind Spot of Western Intellectuals ? Wednesday 26 October
  10. Belgrade Security ForumGet the Latest News and Updates on the Belgrade Security Forum @BelSecForum
  11. Crowdsourcing Week EuropeMaster Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding and Innovation! Conference 21 November - 10% Discount Code CSWEU16
  12. EJCEU Parliament's Roadmap for Relations with Iran a Massive Missed Opportunity