Old Commissioners, new revolving doors

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Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory

Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory

Only three months after the Barroso II Commission left office, some prominent members have already made moves in their professional careers which are putting to test the EU executive’s policy on revolving doors, writes Vicky Cann.

Vicky Cann is a campaigner at the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation, which runs the RevolvingDoorWatch project. 

It is three months since the Barroso II Commission left office and some of its members have been busy arranging new jobs and positions. This has put the revised code of conduct for Commissioners and the updated revolving door rules which it contains to the test for the first time.

One of the first out of the starting blocks was Viviane Reding, the previous EU justice Commissioner and now an MEP. She has now been authorised by the European Commission to become a trustee at the Bertelsmann Foundation, board member of the companies Nyrstar (mining) and Agfa-Gevaert, and to take on paid speaking engagements. No additional conditions were attached to the Commission’s authorisation of these roles other than a specific warning to avoid conflicts of interest “in particular when projects of the Bertelsmann Foundation involved requesting and/or obtaining Community cofinancing”.

But in CEO’s view, this is not an adequate response to the potential conflicts of interest arising from such new roles. Reding had been one of the longest-serving EU Commissioners and it is not hard to imagine how her 15 years at the heart of the Commission, combined with her new role as an MEP, makes her an ideal catch for Nyrstar, the Bertelsmann Foundation and Agfa-Gevaert.

As a recent Commissioner, Reding will have taken collective decisions on many issues that are likely to be of direct interest to her three new employers. Yet now she has a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of these organisations and this could bring her into conflict with her ongoing commitments to the European Commission and the wider public interest, let alone the code of conduct which governs MEPs.

In CEO’s view, there should be a three year ban on ex-Commissioners accepting jobs where there is a risk of a conflict of interest, but the present rules are far less stringent. The current code of conduct says that when former Commissioners leave office they must abide by an 18 month notification period during which they must seek Commission authorisation for any new professional activities. All ex-Commissioners are banned for 18 months from lobbying “members of the European Commission and their staff for his/her business, client, or employer on matters for which they have been responsible”.

Clearly there are loopholes and problems with these rules. The notification and lobby ban periods are far too short, considering the power and influence wielded by commissioners; lobbying is not properly defined; and the targets and content of the proscribed lobbying are too narrowly-drawn.

There is a further anomaly in the rules, in that while they apply for only 18 months, all ex-Commissioners are entitled to a very generous transitional allowance after they leave the Commission of between 40 and 65 per cent of their final basic salary for three years after they have left office. If the purpose of the transitional allowance is to stop ex-Commissioners rushing to accept the first post-mandate job offer that comes along, it needs to be re-thought.

Other Commissioner revolving door moves are also coming to light. Algirdas Šemeta was European Commissioner for taxation and is now the Ukrainian Business Ombudsman. This role forms part of Ukraine’s anti-corruption initiative and is based on an agreement between the government, several international organisations and five Ukrainian business associations. These parties are, in essence, Šemeta’s new employers. The Commission approved this role, although in CEO’s view, it should have clarified that Šemeta should not lobby (directly or indirectly) any part of the Commission, on behalf of any of the organisations involved in his new role, on any issue.  

Ex-environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik has moved (uncontroversially) to become co-chairman of the UN’s international resource panel, to join the advisory council of the European Policy Centre think tank and (more controversially) to become chairman of the Forum for the future of agriculture which was created in March 2008 by the European Landowners’ Organisation and biotech giant Syngenta. Potocnik will be “steering the annual conference programme [of the Forum] and list of invitees and chairing the annual conference”. It is not known whether or not this is a remunerated role, but again, in our view, the European Commission should have tightened up the lobby ban on a role where corporate interests could be in play.

Nelli Feroci who was Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship for only four months in 2014 (replacing Antonio Tajani, who became an MEP) has returned to his previous roles at the Italian Institute for International Affairs and Simest, which supports Italian companies’ overseas ventures. Andris Piebalgs (ex-Commissioner for Decvelopment) has been authorised to become a member of the Friends of the Global Fund Europe (part of Bill Gates’ philanthropic efforts). Ex-digital economy commissioner Neelie Kroes is the new special envoy for start-up companies in the Netherlands and Connie Hedegaard (ex-Commissioner for Climate Action) has moved to chair the new grant-making Kann Foundation. Meanwhile, ex-employment commissioner László Andor will join the boards of several think tanks, including Friends of Europe.

Perhaps, rather preemptively, a press statement has announced the recruitment of Maria Damanaki (ex-fisheries commissioner) by The Nature Conservancy as ‘head of oceans’. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how the Commission will respond to this proposed new role.  

And last but by no means least, the former President of the European  Commission himself, José Manuel Barroso, has been authorised to carry out speaking engagements for a variety of organisations, including commercial speakers’ bureaux and universities, as well as unremunerated work at the World Economic Forum and honorary chairman of the European Business Summit. While the unpaid nature of these two latter activities means that there is no likely conflict of interest per se, Barroso could hardly have chosen two more corporate-driven fora with which to collaborate.

So what conclusions can we draw about the new revolving door rules for Commissioners? It is still early days and we know that the Commission is evaluating other proposed moves, but while we can welcome the fact that some lobbying is now banned for ex-commissioners, the ban stipulated in the code of conduct does not go far enough and the Commission seems reluctant to consider applying tougher restrictions on a case by case basis.

But there is also a further point to be made here. There is significant and legitimate public interest in all of the new professional activities of Barroso and the other ex-Commissioners, but to find out about any Commission authorisations requires requesting the minutes of Commission meetings, trawling through them and then requesting specific papers via time-consuming access to document requests.

In our view, the European Commission should pro-actively publish the full applications for authorisation, the recommendations from the ad hoc ethical committee, and its own decisions in full. That would then allow civil society and the media to perform a watchdog role and to monitor such moves for possible conflicts of interest.

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