Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The diplomatic door-openers

In her Survival guide to EU lobbying Caroline De Cock, an experienced EU lobbyist, calls senior ex-officials who go through the revolving door into commercial lobbying “door-openers” and she writes “They can be of great value, by opening the door to people and offices that would otherwise remain unattainable to your lobbying efforts”.

There can be few more effective door-openers than former European member state diplomats who have been tirelessly working in the Brussels bubble for years, often decades. Representing your country at the EU level brings you into close contact with member state colleagues in the European Council, as well as with senior officials at the Commission and other EU institutions. You can develop an extensive contact book, an insider's knowledge of how the EU system works, as well as the authority and influence which comes from using the title 'Ambassador'.

Take the case of Tibor Kiss, for example who “was instrumental in Hungary's successful accession to the EU and its preparations for hosting the EU Presidency in 2011”. He headed and managed the largest representation of Hungary abroad and “acquired a profound insight into EU policies and institutions, including the challenges of inter-institutional cooperation, political communication and counselling.” He was a diplomat for over 20 years representing Hungary at the European level and in November 2011, he moved to the lobby consultancy PA Europe as a senior policy adviser.

As PA Europe said when he joined them “Through his work in Council and Coreper Ambassador Kiss knows the main dossiers, the leading persons as well as the national and institutional stakeholders’ positions. His personal insights and profound knowledge of the way Brussels works will be a great asset to PA and its clients”.

Or the case of Jean De Ruyt who until recently was Belgium's Ambassador to the EU, including during their 2010 Presidency of the European Council. He was closely involved in Europe’s response to the financial crisis and the resulting legislation at the European level, and he also facilitated the resolution of a variety of state aid and competition policy disputes for Belgian companies. Now he has joined Covington & Burling LLP, a law firm, with a side-line in European advocacy and lobbying.

Upon his appointment, Covington & Burling said: “Jean is a tremendous addition to Covington’s existing government affairs capabilities in Europe and internationally. His knowledge of the European institutions and the complex interplay between EU, UN and US policies and his strategic insights on complex matters are second to none and we are confident his arrival will significantly support our legal team and will be welcomed by many of our clients.”

As former EU ambassadors from member states, the revolving door rules contained in the EU Staff Regulations did not apply to either Ambassador Kiss or Ambassador De Ruyt and this illustrates the need for the European Council and member states to take the revolving door problem seriously and to develop their own rules governing it.

Meanwhile, the UK's own revolving door rules for ministers and for civil servants only cover outgoing civil servants and not incoming. Thus Ivan Rogers who recently joined Prime Minister David Cameron's 10 Downing Street team as adviser on Europe after five years working in the UK finance sector at Barclays Capital and Citigroup, was apparently unregulated under the existing revolving door rules.

By contrast, the EU's own ambassadors overseas are covered by EU staff revolving door rules. So John Bruton, who was EU ambassador to the US for five years until November 2009 did have to apply for permission to join lobby consultancy Cabinet DN and to undertake his various other subsequent external activities. Yet the evidence implies that the Commission is not as proactive as it should be to ensure the rules are followed by its staff and former staff. John Bruton has written on his own website that "Last December [2010] it was brought to my attention by the Commission that, under their rules, I ought to have sought their consent for any professional activities I undertook in the two years after I ceased to be in their employment. I was unaware of this requirement, as it had not been brought to my attention by the Commission either in the discussions that took place before I accepted the post in 2004, or at any time thereafter until December 2010. While I was aware that such requirements applied to former Commissioners, I was not aware that it applied to persons in my position.”

All in all this is a situation which needs to change. These former ambassadors turned lobbyists require effective regulation of their moves through the revolving door, whether they have worked on behalf of the EU or their own member state, in order to prevent the risk of conflicts of interest from occurring. The ball is in the court of the Commission, the European Council and member states themselves to regulate these diplomatic door-openers.

Check out RevolvingDoorWatch to see further evidence of how the EU institutions need to better regulate the revolving door.

The EU institutions are not transparent about the revolving door. If you have information about other revolving door cases, please contact:


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Pro-ACTA lobbies fail on transparency

The European Parliament is facing heavy lobbying in the run-up to a crucial vote on the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Industry lobby groups are stepping up the pressure to make MEPs vote in favour of this global treaty which has come under heavy criticism from civil society.

Almost 2,4 million people signed an Avaaz petition against ACTA, which they fear “could allow corporations to censor the Internet”. This agreement, the petition explains, would “allow private interests to police everything that we do online and impose massive penalties - even prison sentences - against people they say have harmed their business”.

Last week a coalition of 75 industry lobby groups, mainly from sectors such as the music, publishing and film industries, sent a letter to all MEPs, asking them to support ACTA “for the good of Europe”. The lobby groups, representing thousands of European companies who say they are “dependent on intellectual property”, warn that failing to ratify ACTA can “irrevocably affect Europe’s credibility as a trusted global trade partner”.

They call for “a calm and reasoned assessment of the facts rather than the misinformation circulating”. This reaction seems to reflect a nervousness about the fact that there is now finally an open democratic debate about ACTA.

The negotiations that led to the agreement were secretive and deeply undemocratic, with big business lobby groups enjoying generous access while other interests were excluded. And new research by Corporate Europe Observatory shows that the lobbying by the coalition of 75 does also not live up to basic standards of transparency.

Sixty per cent of the industry groups signing the letter to MEPs (45 out of 75) are not even registered as interest representatives in the EU’s Transparency Register. Moreover, among the 30 groups which are registered, six fail to declare how many lobbyists they employ. And the Global Anti-Counterfeiting Group (GACG) absurdly claims that its expenses on lobbying in the financial year 2009 to 2010 were zero euros!

In the register, GACG explains its representation of interests sometimes is done in a voluntary basis and in other cases, costs are borne by the groups affiliated to GACG, but wherever the money comes from, as a lobby group, it should specify how much it spends. This appears to be a clear example of a misleading registration, violating the EU’s Code of Conduct for lobbyists.

Based on the data disclosed in the Transparency Register by the minority in the pro-ACTA coalition that are registered, it can be concluded that they employ at least 93 in-house lobbyists (19 of them with a permanent access pass to the EP) and that they spend around 7 395 000 euros a year on lobbying the EU institutions. It is clearly a very well-resourced lobby that is pushing for ACTA right now.

In the last weeks, demonstrations against the proposed treaty have been held in several cities across the EU and the Avaaz petition also confirms that there are strong concerns among citizens. Some MEPs have already express their position against ACTA as a threat to civil liberties; the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has said it is not good “in its current form”. The next weeks in the run-up to the Parliament’s vote on ACTA will show whether citizens or big business will win this important battle.

See the full list of organisations and info provided in the register.


Friday, 10 February 2012

A once in a decade opportunity

You've probably never heard of the 'Staff Regulations of Officials of the European Communities' but this 150-page tome and its associated annexes constitute 'The Bible' of terms of conditions for the 50,000 plus staff who work across the EU institutions and agencies. It also sets out the ethical obligations for staff including around confidentiality and handling conflicts of interest.

This document is currently the subject of a heated debate between staff trade unions and the Commission as it is up for review, and both the Council and the Commission want to see European officials sharing the austerity being experienced across the member states.

Just before Christmas, the Commission published its proposals for reforming the Staff Regulations. It wants staff levels to be cut by five per cent, staff to work a longer week, the retirement age to be extended, and some lower-ranked staff to receive a reduced salary. Not surprisingly, staff trade unions have a lot to say about this agenda, on behalf of their members. And while the stereotype of a bloated Brussels bureaucracy needing to be cut down to size might play well in the right-wing media, the Commission's 30,000 staff is actually smaller than some member states' government departments. Compared to the wide range of lawmaking and policy-making tasks which the Commission has been given, the number of staff is even on the low side.

Aside from the thorny debate about staff terms and conditions, the Staff Regulations are a crucial document as they contain ethics rules governing staff conduct during and after they leave office. Evidence from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) and Corporate Europe Observatory show that some of these rules are not well-known, well-followed or well-implemented.

This is particularly true for the rules governing the revolving door, when officials leave public office and join the Brussels lobby industry, or when lobbyists become public officials. The revolving door is at the heart of the close relationship between the EU institutions and big business, and the rules that are currently in place contain weaknesses, loopholes and to often appear to be ignored entirely.

For example, temporary officials (sometimes working for several years) at an EU institution are not automatically covered by the rules (see the case of Marten Westrup); there is no ban on officials moving directly into lobby jobs (see the cases of Mogens Peter Carl, Bruno Dethomas, Jean-Philippe Monod de Froideville); and there is culture of sanctioning breaches in the rules (see the cases of John Bruton and Derek Taylor). Additionally, EU staff can take a sabbatical and there is no outright ban on them becoming lobbyists or senior industry leaders during that period (see the case of Magnus Ovilius).

Now all eyes are on the Parliament, specifically the Legal Affairs or JURI committee, as it considers the Commission's proposal to reform the Staff Regulations. This could provide a once-in-10-years opportunity to tighten the revolving door rules.

And during these times of high unemployment across Europe, of austerity, of radical wage cuts in many sectors and countries, of falling support for the idea of the EU and the EU institutions, it can surely be no bad thing to overhaul the rules around ethical conduct of public office to ensure the highest standards, decision-making in the public (not private) interest, and the elimination of the risk of conflicts of interest.

Hopefully EU officials themselves will agree on the need for the highest levels of ethical conduct. As welcome support, the biggest Commission staff union published a statement in their December 2011 magazine to say that “L’USF exige une réglementation du passage des hauts fonctionnaires, commissaires et parlementaires du service public européen au secteur privé afin d’éviter les conflits d’intérêts contraires aux intérêts des citoyens européens” (“The USF demands that senior officials, commissioners and MEPs who move from serving the European public interest to the private sector are subject to rules, so as to avoid conflicts of interest contrary to the interests of European citizens”).

ALTER-EU and CEO agree. The Parliament has a unique opportunity to consider this issue and to tackle apparent Commission complaisance about staff ethics. We hope it will accept this challenge.

This blog has also been published by the Social Europe Journal.