Thursday, 8 December 2011

That revolving door just keeps on spinning ... yet the Commission seems unwilling to do anything about it

A couple of weeks ago, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a new campaign to block the revolving door. Alongside numerous cases of officials, often at the very highest levels in the EU institutions, who have gone through the revolving door to join Brussels' lucrative lobby industry, there was a comprehensive analysis about why the current rules (contained in the Staff Regulations) don't work. In short, they are often ignored, contain loopholes, and aren't properly enforced anyway. And ALTER-EU politely pointed out to Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič that, as the Staff Regulations were already being reviewed, wouldn't it be a good idea to look at the revolving door rules at the same time?

Unfortunately, the response from the Commission has been disappointing, to say the least.

The Commissioner's spokesperson has said that there are already very “strict rules” already in place, although that is hard to believe when the ALTER-EU report pointed out a number of officials who have ignored the rules (and gotten away with it, without sanction), or were not covered by the rules (because of the loophole which excludes staff on temporary contracts from systematic consideration under the rules). Together with the fact that there is only one known case of an official actually being prevented from taking a job under these so-called “strict rules”, the Commission's record in this area seems pretty poor.

Instead, it seems perfectly acceptable for the EU's top officials (and by top we mean Directors-General, advisers to Commissioners and Heads of Cabinet) to go through the revolving door to work for Brussels lobby firms where their corporate clients have a huge interest in hearing the insights of, and benefiting from the personal networks of, such senior officials.

As for Commissioner Šefčovič himself, he might need to do a bit more homework on the revolving door issue. He told an event last week, that EU Commissioners have the longest cooling off period in the world when it comes to the revolving door. But in fact, there is no cooling off period at all for Commissioners; they have a notification period of 18 months during which they must notify the Commission of their new proposed jobs and gain authorisation. This is not the same thing!

But the Commissioner did say one encouraging thing: “We should work hard to avoid conflicts of interest and privileged information. We cannot track what thousands of pensioners are doing but if there are individual cases we will look at them”.

In this case, perhaps the Commissioner could start with looking at the revolving door cases which CEO has listed on its new RevolvingDoorWatch tool. Amongst other cases, RevolvingDoorWatch features Pablo Asbo from Spain, a DG Competition case handler for six years, who is now Associate Director for Competition at Avisa Partners, a Brussels lobby consultancy. At least one of Avisa's current clients was party to a case that Asbo dealt with whilst at DG Competition. Eline Post from the Netherlands was also a case handler at DG Competition and she is now a senior consultant for competition, also at Avisa Partners. Neither Post nor Asbo had authorisation for these moves until CEO raised these cases with the Commission, which constitutes a clear breach of the rules. CEO has submitted complaints about both of these cases.

RevolvingDoorWatch will continue to be updated in the coming weeks as we find new cases, or update current cases. Unfortunately the revolving door problem is not going away for Commissioner Šefčovič...

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Monday, 5 December 2011

Swedish MEP lobbying row underlines need for rules on parliament-industry forums

Swedish environment minister Lena Ek last week came under fire for her role in the European Energy Forum (EEF), a cross-party group of MEPs which is funded by large corporations such as Shell, Nord Stream and Vattenfall. Ek, who acted as vice-chairman of the EEF during her time as an MEP, had failed to formally withdraw from her EEF role when she became environment minister. In an article headlined “Environment minister in controversial lobby group” Svenska Dagbladet, one of the largest newspapers in Sweden on 25 November argued that the corporate members of the EEF buy access to MEPs. The EEF's corporate members pay a fee of least 7,000 euro per year for participating in the EEF's dinner debates. The newspaper quoted Social Democratic MEP Marita Ulvskog who declined the invitation from the EEF on ethical grounds, to underline her “independence from such interests”. Green MEP Carl Schlyter commented that the EEF “is very clearly an industry-funded activity. The goal is not to have an open debate about Europe's future energy supply. They want to influence”.

In an article the following day environment spokesperson of the Social Democrats in the Swedish parliament, Matilda Ernkrans, stepped up the pressure on Ek: “I think it is very serious if Sweden now has an environment minister with very close ties to the nuclear and oil lobby”. Ernkrans suggested that the prime minister should intervene on the matter. The controversy also resulted in Svenska Dagbladet publishing a background analysis article looking into the growing lobbying pressure from industry towards MEPs, not the least from the energy and chemical industries hoping to weaken environmental regulation.

Five days after the story first broke, Lena Ek broke the silence in an interview in Svenska Dagbladet. “I understand the discussion, there are obviously problems”, EK said, but went on to argue that the EEF has a balanced programme that is approved by its MEP members and even claimed that “the politicians set the agenda”. A look at the EEF's website gives the impression that its programme is heavily industry-led, including dinner debates on 'the Finnish way' in expanding nuclear power (with the CEO of a Finnish nuclear company as speaker) and on greater gas consumption as part of climate policy (with a speaker from gas giant GDF Suez), although the programme also features corporate speakers on solar and wind energy. The EEF has also this year organised MEPs visits to the oil sands of Alberta, Canada and to a nuclear power plant in France (“at the invitation of AREVA and EDF”). The next dinner debate, in the coming week in Strasbourg, features a Eurelectric lobbyist on “Improving the Energy Efficiency Directive“. Eurelectric is lobbying heavily for weakening the directive.

Responding to what her approach was to handle the heavy lobbying which MEPs are faced with, Ek relied: “by being open about who you meet with and trying to organise it in a transparent organisation that follow the rules of the parliament”. If this refers to the EEF, then Ek's remarks are unjustified. The EEF is not a recognised Intergroup and therefore does not actually fall under any European Parliament rules. This is a serious loophole in the European Parliament's transparency and ethics rules. As shown in a May 2011 report by Corporate Europe Observatory, the EEF is one of least 15 unregulated cross-party groups that are “acting as 'submarines of industry', bringing together MEPs and industry under the radar of Parliamentary rules to achieve policy and legislative changes that benefit industry”. Unfortunately cross-party groups were not included in the Parliament's new code of conduct for MEPs that was approved last week. The debate in Sweden shows that strong rules are needed. Such rules should include a mandatory transparency register as well as ethics obligations.

The EEF has in the meantime updated its website so there is no reference to Lena Ek anymore.

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