Commission revolving door rules 'useless' in tackling conflicts of interest

The EU's revolving door rules for commissioners are in need of strengthening, argues Jorgo Riss.

By Jorgo Riss

23 Jan 2014

It is a mere eight months until the current college of commissioners are due to leave office and rumours suggest that as many as half of the current crop will not be re-appointed.

The alliance for lobbying transparency and ethics regulation (ALTER-EU) is concerned that the revolving door rules for commissioners are not strong enough to prevent a repeat of the conflicts of interest scandals which dogged the end of the first Barroso commission.

When commissioners Verheugen, McCreevy, Ferrero-Waldner and several of their colleagues left office in 2009-10, the revolving door rules were shown to be useless in tackling possible conflicts of interest.

McCreevy, the former internal market commissioner who had been heavily involved in deregulating financial markets, was banned from taking a directorship at one bank, but simply joined another bank once his 12 month notification period had expired.

The rules also failed to prevent Verheugen, the former industry commissioner, from setting up his own lobby firm which advises clients on strategies for dealing with European institutions, and commissioner Ferrero-Waldner negotiated her new job at Munich Re before she had even left the commission.

The insurance company was a leading player in the Desertec project, large-scale solar energy investments in Africa, which Ferrero-Waldner had, on several occasions, strongly supported during her time as commissioner.

These and other revolving door cases at the time rocked the commission and the negative media coverage led eventually to a change of rules. Now there is a ban forbidding ex-commissioners to lobby for 18 months after they have left office on matters for which they were previously responsible. But is that enough to prevent conflicts of interest?

For us, the answer is no. Commissioners are influential people and take decisions on their own portfolio, but also collectively on a far wider range of issues. An 18 month ban is too short, especially when you know that ex-commissioners are entitled to a generous transitional allowance for three years after they leave and this measure was intended to prevent them from having to accept new jobs that would cause conflicts of interest.

<pullquote>We recommend that to be effective, the current ban on lobbying should be extended to three years.</pullquote> It should cover all issues for which the Barroso II commission has taken collective decisions, and apply to all issues dealt with by the individual commissioner.

Any other job or role likely to create a conflict of interest should also be included within this ban. We have advocated these recommendations and a series of other reforms to the commission's rules on revolving doors in a letter to commission president José Manuel Barroso this week.

But it is not just the revolving door rules that need an overhaul, the way in which they are applied also needs reforming.

In December, the commission had its knuckles rapped by the European ombudsman for failing to properly tackle conflicts of interest in the case of Michel Petite, the chair of the commission's ad hoc ethical committee, responsible for advising on the implementation of the commissioners' revolving door rules.

Petite's appointment to this committee has always seemed ironic as Petite had himself had a spin through the revolving door, from the commission to Clifford Chance law firm a few years before, but now that he has been replaced the time is ripe to do some proper housekeeping.

The commission should create a professional and fully independent ethical committee and its members should be drawn from experts in national ethics administration, to avoid the sense that it is just an 'old EU boys club'.

The committee should be supported by a well-resourced secretariat with investigative powers and it should have a wide enough remit to advise on all ethical issues across the commission.

In 2009-10, the commission gave the impression that it was complacent about the risk of conflicts of interest arising from ex-commissioners' new jobs. These reforms are essential, unless we want 2014 to be the year of the revolving door.

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