Campaigners: Commission ethics group needs teeth after Barroso/Kroes scandals

Jose Manuel Barroso and Jean-Claude Juncker [European Commission]

A small, internal group that reviews ethics breaches at the European Commission should be turned into a legal inquiry board and given its own staff to better police potential scandals like former President Jose Manuel Barroso’s lobbying job with Goldman Sachs, transparency campaigners argue.

The Commission’s “ad-hoc” ethics group did not hold a hearing with Barroso after it was revealed that he started working for the bank last summer, but instead reviewed two letters that he wrote informing the executive of his new job. Barroso served as president of the executive from 2004 to 2014.

Asked whether the Commission will consider giving the group more legal teeth, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today (31 January), “Ours are the most demanding strict rules that you can find amongst other international organisations and national governments.”

NGO Transparency International pointed to France’s transparency authority, which has heard 23 cases since it was set up in 2013, as an example of a much tougher body with nine investigators, more than 30 employees, its own budget and the power to impose tough sanctions.

The Commission’s three-member ad-hoc group includes a former judge at the European Court of Justice, a former MEP and a former director general of the executive’s tax policy arm, who review any new jobs that former Commissioners take on within 18 months of their term ending.

Transparency International called for the group’s opinions to be made binding and for the investigators to be given the power to sanction any officials who break the Commission’s code of conduct. Under the current rules, the group sends its opinions to the executive, which decides whether it will take legal action or demand a fine from former Commissioners who step out of line. The opinions used to be kept private, but the Commission published the group’s review of Barroso last October.

The ethics group’s opinion said Barroso did not break any EU rules because he started at Goldman Sachs twenty months after leaving the executive.

Former Barroso Commissioners still enjoying big paydays

Former Commissioners are enjoying fat transitional allowances, even though they may already be working in the private sector or even if their time at the executive was only fleeting, according to German media. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“It’s an ethical issue, not a legal issue,” said Carl Dolan, director of Transparency International’s Brussels office. “There are 22 organisations that currently have Barroso as a board member and if they feel this is an ethical transgression, maybe they should terminate him,” Dolan stated.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a stricter ruling last November after the ethics group cleared Barroso of wrongdoing. Under the new code of conduct, former Commissioners will be required to inform the executive of any new jobs they take on within two years of their term ending. For Commission presidents, that time limit will go up to three years—meaning Barroso would have been in breach of the new rules if they were introduced earlier. Schinas called Juncker’s proposal to tighten restrictions on former Commissioners “a significant move”.

The Commission has been dogged by accusations that it does not do enough to prevent former Commissioners and top officials from moving on to well-paid lobbying jobs. Two months after Barroso reported back to the Commission about his job with Goldman Sachs, former Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes—who served under Barroso until 2014—was caught up in scandal when it was revealed that she served as director of an offshore company in the Bahamas starting in 2000, but never informed the executive of the job. That same month, scandal-stained car manufacturer Volkswagen announced it hired former EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, who also served under Barroso, as a consultant.

Last month, the Commission gave Kroes a wrist-slap for not reporting the job when she took office in 2004, but declined to raise legal charges or a fine against her. Kroes currently has paid jobs on the boards of ride-hailing app Uber and the Bank of America.

Brussels reprimands ex-commissioner Kroes, recoups cash

The EU handed an unprecedented public reprimand to a former commissioner on Wednesday (21 December) for taking allowances she was not entitled to but stopped short of legal action after recouping the money.

EU officials can often expect a well-paid job as a lobbyist when they leave their jobs at one of the institutions. More than half of all former EU Commissioners now work for companies, consultancies or NGOs that are registered lobby groups in Brussels, according to research published today by Transparency International.

At least one-fifth of all top lobbyists in Brussels used to work in one of the EU institutions, the NGO said. One high-ranking official in the Commission’s energy policy directorate even went to work for oil company Saudi Aramco during a long sabbatical from his job as a policymaker.

MEPs are also lax when it comes to lobbying jobs: one-third of legislators who left the European Parliament when the last term ended in 2014 are now working for companies, consultancies or NGOs that are listed in EU lobbying registries, Transparency International’s research showed.

New rules approved by the Parliament last month restrict MEPs from moonlighting as lobbyists, although they are still allowed to have second or third jobs in private companies.

Dolan called the surge of EU officials who transition to lobbyist jobs a “lightening rod” for populist politicians like former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and US President Donald Trump, who have both railed against lobbyists’ unwieldy political influence. But Transparency International is calling for stricter rules on lobbying, not a drastic overhaul of the EU institutions.

“Our conclusions are vastly different from Farage and Trump’s,” Dolan insisted.

“They’re saying the elites are running the show. That’s not our message,” he said.

Lawmakers tighten EU Parliament rules, but fail to ban all second jobs

After two years of intense horse-trading, MEPs approved on Tuesday (13 December) a set of reforms to make the European Parliament more efficient and transparent, but limited the scope of banning second jobs to those who actually influence decision-making.