Lessons from the Barroso affair: How to reform Commission ethics

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Jean-Claude Juncker and José Manuel Barroso at the EPP summit in 2014. [European People's Party/Flickr]

After months of procrastinating, Jean-Claude Juncker has now suggested extending the cooling off period for former Commission presidents. Unfortunately, the proposal is too weak to prevent scandals like ‘Barrosogate’ from happening again.

Margarida Silva is a researcher on lobby transparency issues at Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO challenging the privileged influence of corporations and their lobbyists in EU policy-making.

Following the revelation that former Commission President Barroso would join Goldman Sachs International, Juncker had to be prodded long and hard before passing the case on for assessment at the Commission’s ad-hoc ethics committee. At the start of November, the committee published its opinion, criticising Barroso’s lack of judgment regarding his new roles as chairman and adviser at the bank.

And yet, the committee failed to find sufficient evidence that a breach of the ethics requirements in the European Treaty had occurred.

Juncker is now proposing an extension of the cooling-off period for outgoing presidents from 18 months to three years. Anticipating that this may not sit well with other Commissioners, he has insisted he would still subject himself to this longer period of abstinence, even if his colleagues were to object to the change of rules for ex-presidents.

It is, of course, positive to see the Commission finally accepting that there is a problem with its ethics rules. But Juncker’s proposal is yet another example of the Commission’s highest level insisting on regulating itself, and, after months of ignoring the public outcry over Commissioners’ scandals, it does too little to prevent future cases.

The Barroso affair has taught us that if Juncker is to truly address the executive’s revolving doors problem and avoid more scandals, he needs to go further, much further, than symbolic gestures: he has to overhaul the entire code of conduct for Commissioners.

Almost everybody agrees that some regulation of the employment choices of ex-commissioners is needed. But how long should the former Commission elite be subjected to such rules and which types of jobs should they regulate? In our view, the current 18-month period is simply not long enough to prevent conflicts of interest.

After all, as part of the college, Commissioners take many collective decisions on a wide range of issues over a period of years and former Commissioners exit with a huge level of prestige, authority and insider know-how about how to get things done.

This applies even more to ex-presidents, who have arguably held the highest office and the position of greatest influence in the European Union.

Any effective cooling off period must be long enough to devalue these privileges enough to avoid conflicts of interest. Neither the current 18-month period for all, nor Juncker’s suggested period of two years for Commissioners and three years for ex-presidents, will achieve this.

Jobs which relate to Commissioners’ previous roles as members of the college or involve direct or indirect lobbying of the EU institutions must be off limits for at least three years for Commissioners and five years for ex-presidents.

Time and again, the Commission has insisted that its ethics rules are some of the toughest in the world. Yet, in Canada, cabinet ministers are subjected to a lobbying ban for five years, which comes on top of other restrictions. European Commissioners hold positions comparable to those of ministers at the national level – the difference being that EU executive decisions affect over 500 million people across Europe.

What the Barroso affair has also illustrated is the weakness of the ethics committee itself. The Commission is straining to affirm the committee’s independence even though the body is mostly made up of EU insiders: one of its three members is a former Commission director-general and two committee members at the time of their appointment were also special advisers to current Commissioners.

The ad-hoc ethics committee also appears to lack the necessary tools to conduct adequate investigations and enforce its decisions. For the case at hand, it looks like the committee’s recommendation regarding Barroso was formed without even interviewing him, and the committee has simply accepted his statement that he won’t lobby for Goldman Sachs without probing what he meant by ‘lobbying’.

Does this mean he will not at all be involved in any type of lobbying? Or will he still provide strategic advice to the bank’s lobbyists on who to meet, when and how? We don’t know and neither, it appears, does the ethics committee.

If Juncker is at all serious about addressing the Commission’s ethics problem, he cannot take shortcuts. He needs to take a step back and re-think the code of conduct, including the length and scope of the cooling off period, as well as the independence and power of the ethics committee.

To do this successfully, he will also have to listen to critical voices, whether they come from the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman, the staff of the EU institutions or civil society. Only then can he show that he is not just paying lip service to ethics.