‘Revolving doors’ rules need revamping, says EU Ombudsman

European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly. [European Ombudsman]

Rules governing European Commission officials joining the private sector need to be revamped, the European Ombudsman said today, before warning she would summon any public servant or commissioner suspected of a conflict of interest.

Emily O’Reilly today (23 September) issued a series of draft recommendations to combat the “systemic maladministration” in the EU executive’s procedure to fight the “revolving doors” phenomenon.

“Revolving doors” refers to influential officials, commissioners and MEPs, who leave their jobs to join, for example, multinational companies or lobbying firms.  

This can lead to conflicts of interest, civil society organisations, whose complaints led to the Ombudsman investigation, have warned.

Officials can use their contacts and sensitive information they were privy to, to influence the legislative process on behalf of their new employers.

O’Reilly told reporters she was prepared to summon senior officials – and commissioners, if necessary – to explain themselves, if they appeared to have breached the rules.

She intends to use her supervisory powers more than they had been in the past. As well as the ability to summon officials, she can demand access to any institutional document, no matter how secret

O’Reilly said she will step up her supervision of senior EU officials – those of director and director-general level and above.

She demanded the Commission use “all possible measures” against staff accepting dodgy employment offers. The obligation to act with integrity was not limited by a time period, her recommendations said.  

Officials taking a job that lead to a conflict of interest can face disciplinary measures, which can ultimately hit their pension payments. Ombudsman staff could not recall that particular measure ever being taken by the Commission.

While the recommendations focused on senior officials, O’Reilly said she hoped the Commission would consider her recommendations also applied to more junior officials and commissioners.

The executive must send a detailed opinion on the recommendations by 31 December.

While the Ombudsman can investigate maladministration in the European Parliament, MEPs have their own ethics body.

Publish their names

O’Reilly called for the Commission to regularly publish relevant information about officials leaving to work online.

While that would include their names, their position and the organisation they planned to join, it would not include their salaries. It would also include details of their old and future activities.

More junior officials – such as a heads of unit – would not have their names published. The Ombudsman believes, in their case, the public interest does not outweigh concerns over data protection.  

Officials must inform the Commission of any proposed new employment during the two years after they leave the institution. Senior officials are forbidden from lobbying their former colleagues for a year after they leave.

An application is made to the human resources department, which gathers information from other officials before making a decision. It can be to refuse permission to join the new employer, an approval of the application or approve the application with conditions.

The investigation highlighted the risk, particularly with senior officials that the assessment of applications would be carried out by those who had worked closely with the applicant.

EURACTIV, which has long covered the battle for more transparency, has learnt this happened in “a number, more than one” of the 54 revolving doors files that were looked at in the Ombudsman’s probe.  

Not enough detail

The probe exposed several areas in need of improvement. While the EU staff regulations were sufficiently robust, there were issues around the transparency and detail of the decision-making.

While rejections were exhaustively explained, most likely to protect against legal action from disgruntled employees, approved applications were often simply marked with a “no opinion”.

That lack of detail led the Ombudsman to call for proper, sufficiently detailed record-keeping following a full analysis.

Implicit in the recommendation is a criticism of current Commission practices. The rules needed to be implemented across all departments consistently, the recommendations said.

A centralised register of staff applications to leave and conflict of interest assessments for incoming staff was also needed, according to the recommendations.

The Ombudsman has no direct powers to compel the institutions to adopt her recommendations. But the pressure the recommendations exert does bring results, she said.

Referring to the Ombudsman’s Annual Report, O’Reilly said that actions resolved problems 80% of the time. She was working hard to increase that figure, she explained.

“International experience has shown us that this ‘revolving doors’ phenomenon can at times potentially have a corrupting influence on senior staff, which damages public trust immensely,” O’Reilly commented.

The decision that the Commission should make its processes on revolving doors cases “more robust” to avoid conflicts of interest, was welcomed by the Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace, LobbyControl and SpinWatch.

Jorgo Riss of Greenpeace, one of the complainants, said, “Recruiting via the revolving door is one of the most important tactics available to big business lobbyists and we’ve been concerned about it for years.”

Antony Gravili, Commission spokesman for inter-institutional relations and administration, said the existing rules were “very robust, especially when compared to most member states where rules are weaker or even non-existent”.

“Nevertheless, the Commission is always seeking to improve the existing framework, and shares the Ombudsman’s view that the challenge now is optimisation of these procedures,” he added.

Antony Gravili, Commission spokesman for inter-institutional relations and administration, said, "European Commission rules on post-employment activities are fully in line with OECD guidelines and are very robust, especially when compared to most member states where rules are weaker or even non-existent. We welcome the Ombudsman's recognition of this 'strong legal basis' and the 'useful procedures and structures for implementing these rules', and take note that she commends the Commission for the steps it has taken.

"Nevertheless, the Commission is always seeking to improve the existing framework, and shares the Ombudsman's view that the challenge now is optimisation of these procedures. That is why we fully co-operated with the investigation, and why we now look forward to examining her draft recommendations carefully, with a view to submitting an opinion by the 31 December deadline."

Today's recommendations from the Ombudsman follows a 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. The probe began in February 2013. 

  • 31 December: Deadline for Commission to reply to the EU Ombudsman

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