The European Ombudsman will today (14 February) launch a formal investigation into allegations that the European Commission is failing to clamp down on conflicts of interest amongst staff who leave the EU executive to take up jobs as lobbyists and consultants.
An original complaint was filed to the Ombudsman in October last year by NGOs Corporate Europe Observatory, Greenpeace, Lobbycontrol and Spinwatch, claiming that the Commission is unwittingly allowing private interests undue influence in public policymaking.
The Ombudsman is due to launch a formal investigation, and will seek previously undisclosed details of all cases in the last three years where Commission staff have left to take up jobs in the private sector where conflicts may occur.
Commission has power to ban and impose conditions
Under current rules, staff leaving the EU executive should be vetted for conflicts of interest before taking up private-sector jobs, and monitored for two years afterwards where such positions could lead to a conflict with the “legitimate interests of the institution”.
If such a potential conflict is uncovered then the EU executive has the power to ban the move, or impose conditions on it.
The original complaint set out 10 examples of perceived abuses of the revolving-door system. These included the cases of John Bruton, the former EU ambassador to the United States and Petra Ehrler, the head of cabinet to the former Enterprise and Industry Commissioner, Günther Verheugen.
The document said that Bruton, who went on to become a senior advisor to Brussels-based lobby consultancy Cabinet DN, failed to inform the Commission of his move and later said he did not know he was supposed to.
Ehrler set up an EU lobby consultancy with Verheugen immediately after leaving her post, but only applied for permission to do so four months later, claiming that she had not been made aware of this requirement, according to the complaint.
Ombudsman could recommend stricter rules
“If there are indications of a systemic problem, I will close the inquiry into the present complaint and open an own-initiatives inquiry, thereby giving me greater procedural flexibility to pursue my inquiry in the public interest,” the Ombudsman told the complainants in correspondence dated 1 February.
After the investigation, the Ombudsman could make recommendations as to how the Commission carries out its duties.
“Dalligate has shown us that personal contacts in the Commission are extremely useful to lobbyists wishing to promote their interests,” said Rachel Tansey, a campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory.
Tansey was referring to the case of the former health commissioner, John Dalli, who was forced to resign last year amid allegations that he was influenced by lobbyists.
“Many lobby consultancies head hunt Commission staff because they provide them with invaluable inside knowledge and contacts. It is a profitable business strategy and one the Commission cannot afford to ignore,” Tawnsey added.
The NGOs are calling on the Commission and the European Parliament to require lobby groups, companies and consultancies signed up to the EU’s transparency register to disclose if their lobbyists have previously worked as EU officials.
The EU register is currently under review, two years after it was launched.
“The Ombudsman investigation based on our complaint is good news for transparency,” said Jorgo Riss, a director at Greenpeace EU.
“For too long, the Commission has turned a blind eye to the conflicts of interest that can arise when EU bureaucrats change job to become lobbyists, or when lobbyists start working in the EU administration. The Ombudsman’s investigation should lead the Commission to close the revolving door to private lobbyists who put the public interest at risk.”
In 2011, the European Commission and the European Parliament launched a joint online register for lobbyists working in Brussels, hoping to bring more transparency to the EU policymaking process by shedding light on those trying to influence it.
The launch of the register, which went online in June 2011, represented the culmination of years of discussions between the two EU institutions on setting up a joint lobby register.
Until then, lobbying activity had been subject to separate voluntary registers in the Commission and Parliament. The EU Council of Ministers, which represents member states, said it was ready to join but needed more time to prepare.
>> Read our LinksDossier on the EU's Transparency Initiative
- 14 Feb.: EU Ombudsman to launch investigation into "revolving door" in the EU Commission
- Ombudsman: Ombudsman examines the Commission’s handling of “revolving doors” cases (14 Feb. 2013)
- European Parliament: MEPs back joint Parliament-Commission register of lobbyists (Press release; 11 May 2011) [FR] [FR] [DE]
- European Ombudsman: Website
- EPP Group: Lobbyist Register: Parliament and Commission agree on more transparency. Carlo Casini MEP (Press release; 11 May 2011)
- Greens/EFA:Joint lobbyist register a step in the right direction but still a work in progress (Press release; 11 May 2011) [DE]
- Corporate Europe Observatory: Original complaint to Ombudsman dated 16 October 2013
EurActiv Germany: Lobbying: Drehtür-Fälle der EU-Kommission im Fokus