Sunday

25th Sep 2022

Opinion

Brussels 'becoming like Washington' for revolving-doors

  • Emily O'Reilly: 'Minor rule of law breaches in certain member states are ignored or minimised; apparent conflicts of interests are overlooked; 'revolving doors' are allowed to revolve' (Photo: European Ombudsman)
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The EU is marking the 'rentrée' with the traditional State of the European Union address which will set out the broad agenda for the coming months and years, but its commitment to maintaining high accountability standards internally is more important than ever.

When faced with the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the ongoing Covid situation, and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, it might be tempting to put to one side what some might consider to be the rather more abstract, even minor, matter of EU administrative standards.

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  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 'If the political or administrative leadership does not consider the 'revolving doors' issue to be a vital one, or if it cannot see the potential harms caused, then the problem will continue' (Photo: European Parliament)

Faced with such potentially existential crises what purpose does it serve to critique the EU administration for possible lapses or for failures to be entirely open about its work? It's a very busy time after all.

The answer of course is that none of those crises turned up overnight. The seeds were sown over years if not decades, at both national and EU levels, and not just through bad political choices. Poor administration went hand in hand with many of them.

A slow build-up of weak or unethical decision making — even in relation to superficially minor issues — leads over time to crises that can inflict an enormous human and financial cost.

Minor rule of law breaches in certain member states are ignored or minimised; apparent conflicts of interests are overlooked; 'revolving doors' are allowed to revolve; important public interest information is not made public; claims are made for the effectiveness of products or services that turn out not to be true or to be overstated.

In some instances, a culture of impunity emerges if national or European oversight bodies are sidelined or starved of resources.

Little-by-little, at times over years or over decades, holes begin to appear in the fabric of the democratic and institutional cloth that is there to shelter and protect us.

Hunt for the enablers

When the history of this time is written, many of the culprits might seem obvious. But history may also record the enablers, those whose actions, networks, lobbying skills, legal skills, and often just greed, allowed the potential scale of the climate crisis, for example, to be minimised, and urgent policy proposals to be watered down or scrapped.

European dependency on Russian oil and gas also had its enablers. Former national politicians and civil servants had the network and the insider knowledge sufficient reportedly to manipulate and exploit the regulatory environment.

In many EU countries, the story of the build-up to the financial crisis, is also replete with enablers, overly-close relationships between commercial interests and governments, a regulatory system that appeared to be captured, and a reluctance properly to resource some independent accountability mechanisms.

The gap between the public's faith in administrative and other kinds of protection and the actual reality was also exposed in other areas we in the European Ombudsman's office have been involved in.

Our inquiry into the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, for example, noted the gap between the agency's name and the agency's capacity actually to do that. The political claims made for it at the time of its creation were overblown. It took the Covid crisis to reveal the reality of an agency dependent on at times unwilling or slow member states for the critical data it had needed to prepare for the pandemic that eventually struck our world. The mandate of the ECDC is now being strengthened.

Our many inquiries into the 'revolving door' phenomenon across several EU institutions reveal a somewhat permissive institutional culture.

Revolving doors — rules, but what about enforcement?

There is no absence of rules governing moves by EU staff to the private sector but the monitoring of what happens next and the desire to act robustly on suspected or actual breaches does not live up to what the public might expect.

Culture determines much when it comes to this issue. If the political or administrative leadership does not consider the 'revolving doors' issue to be a vital one, or if it cannot see the potential harms caused, then the problem will continue.

On this issue, Brussels is becoming more like Washington DC every year. Regulations can often be influenced against the long term public interest, leading to the sort of outcomes we can all now see with the climate and energy crises.

The current crises have also sharpened public interest in — and concern — in finding out how the EU administration is handling them.

We have several complaints based on a lack of access to documents related to the recovery and resilience funding plans in certain member states. We have a case concerning the transparency of the decision-making on sanctions against Russia, a case about the European Central Bank and how it handles 'revolving doors'; and a case about access to documents related to EU environmental strategy and legislation. We are also looking into how the Commission carried out a public consultation concerning the sustainable corporate governance initiative, following a complaint.

I have always acknowledged that the EU administration operates at a high standard, and indeed the vast majority of our inquiries end with a finding of no maladministration.

So Ombudsman critiques, when needed, might seem unfair but those recommendations are made not in a negative spirit but rather as a parent who might criticise a talented child with enormous potential.

Our task is to continue to encourage the EU administration to reflect more deeply on the totality of its actions, and to join the dots between small administrative actions and where they might take all of us if care is not properly taken.

Decisions that take full account of the public interest and that are based on transparency and accountability will help us through current crises and help to prevent the seeds of future crises being sown.

Author bio

Emily O'Reilly is the European Ombudsman, responsible for investigation maladministration within the EU institutions.

Disclaimer

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

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