The Brief: Time’s up for toothless ethics committee

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

One year ago, the post-mandate activities of European Commissioners made headlines when it emerged that former Commission President José Manuel Barroso had accepted a top job at investment bank Goldman Sachs.

To Europe’s collective astonishment and disappointment, the Commission’s Ad Hoc Ethics Committee (AHEC) found nothing untoward in the appointment. It merely said the former president had not shown “considerate judgement” for a man of his experience.

It is worth reminding that Goldman Sachs is the American bank that had helped Greece pull the wool over Europe’s eyes about the extent of its budget deficit — while Barroso was in office.

This was followed by news that former Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard had been hired as a consultant by emissions scandal-ridden carmaker Volkswagen. And ex-Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes had joined the board of Uber, a company up to its neck in unfair competition lawsuits.

Despite the widespread outrage that ensued, these appointments were also waved through by the AHEC. After all, none of the former Commissioners actually broke the Code of Conduct, which stipulated only an 18-month (generously compensated) cooling-off period.

But at a time when Brussels was – and still is – struggling to demonstrate its relevance in people’s everyday lives, these scandals were a massive own goal. They served to strengthen the impression among an already-disenchanted population that the EU’s leaders were just in it for themselves.

Last week EU Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly resurrected the issue with a letter to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, praising the proposed extension of the cooling-off period and asking how the EU executive intended to beef up the powers of the AHEC and ensure its Code of Conduct for Commissioners complied with the EU treaties.

This is the first sign that the EU may be getting serious about ethics in its own ranks.

While highly technical, the rules on post-mandate activities are vital for the health of the European Union. So is the body that enforces them.

Delays and accusations of conflicts of interest within the AHEC do not inspire confidence that the Commission takes the issue seriously. For that matter, nor does the name ‘Ad Hoc Committee’.

Europe deserves an ethics committee with the power to launch its own investigations, to define what is meant by “integrity and discretion” in the EU treaties, and to make and enforce binding judgements.

The last thing the EU needs is a repeat of the Barroso Commission’s scandals, which critics can hold up as proof that Europe is run by cynical and opportunistic elites.

With O’Reilly’s help, the Juncker Commission can avoid the same fate.


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