When I started my work as European ombudsman a year ago, I decided to concentrate some of my resources on strategic investigations into systemic problems in the EU administration in order to maximise the impact of my work for the European public. One such strategic investigation concerns the 'revolving doors' phenomenon where civil servants leave EU employment to take up jobs in the private sector or in government agencies and vice versa.
International experience has shown that this 'revolving doors' situation can potentially have a corrupting influence on senior staff, damaging public trust. It is vital that we ensure that such a situation does not develop in Brussels.
It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for EU employees to accept job offers outside the EU administration. However, the EU institutions must have strong and transparent monitoring systems in place to make sure that such moves do not give rise to conflicts of interest. Since January 2014, officials leaving EU employment must inform their EU institution of any proposed new employment for a period of two years after leaving their post. Furthermore, former senior officials are not allowed to lobby their former colleagues for a period of 12 months following their departure. EU institutions have the right to take disciplinary measures if an official takes a job which gives rise to a conflict of interest.
“My role is to ensure that the EU institutions apply the highest ethical standards, as well as proactive transparency about lobbying to allow for proper public scrutiny”
During my investigation, I inspected 54 'revolving doors' files in the European commission. I found deficiencies in how decisions on such cases are reasoned and documented. It is not always clear whether the officials concerned provided the information needed for the commission to make well informed decisions, nor how comments from the commission's services were taken into account. Furthermore, the commission does not always fully explain why it has decided to approve a request by a former official wishing to accept a job offer.
In my recommendation, I urged the commission to correct these omissions and to make its review processes on 'revolving doors' cases more robust to avoid conflicts of interest.
I also called on the commission regularly to publish online all relevant information about senior EU officials, including their names, who leave to work outside the EU administration.
As for my own role, I will increase the use of my supervisory powers accordingly. This means that I might call on EU civil servants to testify when I examine 'revolving doors' cases in the future.
My investigation concerns commission staff only and not EU commissioners as they are not subject to EU staff regulations. However, the principles underlying my recommendations are obviously also valid for EU commissioners.
The 'revolving doors' investigation needs to be seen in the broader context of 'lobbying transparency'. Lobbying plays an important role in functioning democracies and Brussels is now the second most important 'lobbying capital' in the world after Washington DC. My role is to ensure that the EU institutions apply the highest ethical standards, as well as proactive transparency about lobbying to allow for proper public scrutiny.
Two of my other strategic investigations in this context concern the transparency of the ongoing transatlantic trade and investment partnership negotiations, and the composition and transparency of the commission's expert groups.
Furthermore, I very much welcome the recent announcements made by president-designate of the commission Jean-Claude Juncker on working towards a mandatory transparency register, covering the commission, the parliament, and the council. A stronger – and eventually mandatory – transparency register will also enhance trust in the EU's decision making.