The EU is in a spin, officials get caught in revolving doors
It's revolving door season in Brussels as ex-MEPs, departing commissioners and former officials decide on their future career moves. But the rules preventing conflicts of interest and abuses of power are found wanting states Vicky Cann.
Vicky Cann is a campaigner for Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation. CEO runs the RevolvingDoorWatch project.
It's revolving door season in Brussels as ex-MEPs, departing commissioners and former officials decide on their future career moves. But the rules to prevent the risk of conflicts of interest and abuses of power from arising are being found wanting and are in need of urgent reform.
The new European Parliament is only weeks old, but already a number of MEPs who stepped down at the recent elections have gone through the revolving door into industry jobs which are closely related to their former parliamentary responsibilities. Attracting particular controversy have been the cases of three ex-MEPs, formerly on the influential Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, who have now joined the multinational insurance provider AEGON, UK lobby firm Sovereign Strategies and the London Stock Exchange Group.
The MEP code of conduct has little to say about MEPs who go through the revolving door. It simply tells them not to use their lifelong parliamentary access pass for lobbying purposes and then packs them off into the sunset with nice transitional allowance of a month's pay per year served as an MEP. As transitional allowances are intended to ensure that ex-MEPs do not need to take the first job that comes along once they have left office and to act as a buffer against possible conflicts of interest, it seems clear that this system is not working.
The system of transitional allowances for European commissioners is also inadequate to the job. Right now, former commissioners are entitled to a very generous allowance of 40-60 per cent of their salary for three years after they leave office, yet their revolving door duties (to seek authorisation for new roles and a limited lobby ban) only apply for 18 months. This is clearly a mismatch, and these rules require substantial reform, including a far longer lobby ban of three years, and a wider definition of lobbying which includes indirect lobbying and all issues for which the Commission took collective decisions.
It is right that we take commissioners and revolving doors seriously, after all commissioners have substantial power and authority, are privy to a lot of confidential information, and overtime will have developed a huge contact book and personal influence. It's no wonder that they are highly-sought after, and its not difficult to imagine how the risk of conflicts of interest or potential abuses of power might arise. Just remember what happened at the end of the Barroso Commission, when five former commissioners subsequently had spins through the revolving door into corporate jobs, which raised the risk of possible conflicts of interest. These revolving door cases provoked significant outrage and media comment.
But there is a third category of EU revolving door cases with which we should also be concerned, namely officials, especially those who have risen through the ranks or who have in-depth policy knowledge and experience. Too many of these officials who, lets face it, do the day-to-day work of keeping the EU machine running, go through the revolving door and join lobby consultancies, law firms or other industry lobby groups.
Sometimes these moves are part of a transition to retirement. After a long and illustrious career in the EU institutions, why not share those insider-insights with people who will pay to hear them? Other, younger officials seem to be on a merry-go-round within the Brussels bubble, moving seamlessly from temporary contracts within the institutions to industry and then back again. Far luckier are the officials who go on secondment for a couple of years from an EU job to an industry role, knowing full well that a job remains open for them in their previous institution when they have decided that its time to go back.
The EU staff regulations govern the revolving door moves of officials in the Commission, and the other institutions, and these rules were tightened up in 2013. Now, senior officials leaving the EU institutions face a one-year lobby ban, and those on sabbatical are forbidden to lobby their old institution. Yet these lobby bans are too restrictively drawn-up and are too short. Top EU officials, arguably, are as important as commissioners, and should face a three year lobby ban; lower-level civil servants should face a two year restriction. And again, indirect lobbying (providing lobby advice and strategy, for example) should also be banned. In addition, officials on temporary contracts should face revolving door rules; right now they are largely excluded.
It is clear that the revolving doors culture in the Brussels bubble needs to change. Sure, we do not want EU institutions that are only packed with life-long bureaucrats who have no work experience from the wider world. But it seems clear that the Brussels lobby industry is pro-actively recruiting former insiders, knowing full well that it will bring them, their employers, members, share-holders and / or clients all the advantages of their insider know-how, influence and formidable contact books.
The Commission needs to initiate further reform of the EU staff regulations and Jean-Claude Juncker should make proposals to his new college of commissioners to tighten up their own code of conduct, as outlined above. Meanwhile, European Parliament President Martin Schulz should lead reforms for the code of conduct for MEPs too, which could include a cooling-off period, or a ban on ex-MEPs taking problematic jobs for 18 months.
Alas, turkeys do not vote for Christmas, so don't hold your breath.
You can read more about the revolving door cases of the Barroso I Commission here: http://corporateeurope.org/blog/whatever-happened-mccreevy-verheugen-et-al
You can read more about recent MEPs and the revolving door here: http://corporateeurope.org/revolving-doors/2014/09/meps-spin-industry