Commission’s draft ethics code under fire

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Draft rules governing the behaviour of EU commissioners have come under fire from transparency groups, which accused the European Commission of not doing enough to address "revolving door" issues. But the Commission said its critics had failed to take into account "the full picture". 

A draft revision of the Code of Conduct for commissioners, seen by EURACTIV, is "too weak to prevent potential conflicts of interest when ex-commissioners take up new roles," according to transparency group ALTER-EU.  

The European Commission is currently revising its rules after assessing different codes in the EU institutions, member states and worldwide.

The new Code "reflects best practices in the field of ethics regulations for public office holders and provides for the highest standards of ethical integrity," wrote Commission President José Manuel Barroso in a letter to his counterpart at the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.

"In the performance of their duties [commissioners] must neither seek nor take instructions from any government or from any other body," reads a leaked draft of the code.

Moreover, "commissioners should behave in a manner that is in keeping with the dignity and the duties of their office, both during and after their term of office," while "ruling out all risks of a conflict of interest helps to guarantee their independence," it states.

Among its provisions is a proposal to extend the period during which former commissioners must ask the EU executive for permission to take up a new job from its current duration of one year to 18 months.

The Commission must seek the opinion of an ad-hoc ethical committee before making a decision.

But transparency campaigners are unhappy, as they do not believe the proposed new rules go far enough to address potential conflicts of interest. 

The new Code explicitly bans former commissioners from taking on lobbying or advocacy work on issues related to their portfolio for 18 months after leaving their position.

But it fails to precisely define what constitutes "lobbying" or a "conflict of interest".

"This Code will not stop the type of scandal that we saw last autumn, where former Commissioners Günter Verheugen and Charlie McCreevy took up lobby jobs with companies including RyanAir and the Royal Bank of Scotland," said Friends of the Earth Europe's Paul de Clerck, speaking on behalf of ALTER-EU (the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation).

Since leaving office, Verheugen has launched a lobbying consultancy called 'The European Experience Company', prompting NGOs to cry foul and warn that this was a blatant conflict of interest.

"The European Parliament must improve the Code to close the loopholes and make sure that all lobby jobs are banned for a period of three years," de Clerck said.

Under the draft new Code, only activities related to an ex-commissioner's portfolio will be assessed.

ALTER-EU argues that this fails to take into account the fact that the College of Commissioners takes decisions collectively, meaning that commissioners are involved in decision-making on issues beyond the scope of their individual portfolios.

The transparency group believes lobby work should be off-limits for former commissioners for all issues. "This is the only way to prevent ex-commissioners from being hired by large companies and their lobby groups for their inside information and contacts acquired in public office, boosting corporate access and influence," it says.

Commission rejects criticism

Asked by EURACTIV to respond to ALTER-EU's criticism, Mark Gray, a spokesman for European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, said "we do not comment on leaks".

"The Commission is currently preparing its revised Code of Conduct, which will further increase transparency, strengthen legitimate political activities of commissioners and clarify the employment activities admissible after leaving office," Gray said.  

"We do not accept the criticism of ALTER-EU, which is not based on the full picture of the Commission's intentions," the Commission spokesman added.

Asked when he expected the new Code to be adopted, Gray replied: "The Commission has forwarded its initial views to the European Parliament. After these discussions, the Commission will finalise its revised rules and present these when adopted."

His colleague Michael Mann, spokesman for Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, told EURACTIV that "the Commission has decided to further improve its rules unilaterally but also believes that a common inter institutional approach to ethical rules would send a positive signal to European citizens".

The draft Code must be approved by the European Parliament assembly before it can be adopted by the Commission.

Barroso is set to discuss the new rules with European Parliament President Buzek and the presidents of the EU assembly's political groups in February.  

"The current rules allow commissioners to exploit their insider knowledge and contacts by accepting lucrative positions with industry," said Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory, speaking on behalf of ALTER-EU (the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation).

"The Commission has failed to tackle this problem in the new draft Code, allowing former commissioners to still move into lobbying jobs immediately after leaving office. The responsibility now lies with the Parliament to remedy this," he added. 

The conduct of European commissioners is governed by a Code of Conduct.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso pledged to revise the Code of Conduct for commissioners when presenting his political guidelines for his second term at the EU executive’s helm to the European Parliament in September 2009. 

  • February: Barroso to discuss draft Code of Conduct for commissioners with Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament. 

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