Friday, 1 June 2012

MEPs call for curbs on the revolving door

In recent months, the Parliament has been busy reviewing the Commission's proposal to reform the rules that govern EU officials' terms and conditions. There is a fairly widely-held view amongst the institutions that EU staff must not be excluded from the wider austerity measures which are simultaneously being implemented within member states.

Yet, amongst the proposals for longer working hours and a delayed retirement age, the Commission could also have chosen to tighten up the ethics rules which govern the 50,000+ staff working at the Commission, Parliament, agencies and other EU institutions. Yet the Commission chose to ignore this opportunity when it published its proposal.

Luckily MEPs have been more thoughtful, introducing amendments to better regulate the revolving door, as well as on other important topics such as protecting whistleblowers. These revolving door amendments would ban EU officials from going on a sabbatical to become a lobbyist, as well as introducing a one year cooling-off period to prevent senior officials from becoming lobbyists after they leave office. While these amendments are not perfect, and loopholes would still remain, they are a step in the right direction and encouragingly, were tabled by groups across the political spectrum, including the European People's Party, the Greens and the Liberals. In the latest development, the Legal Affairs committee voted in favour of amendments on this issue.

Now it looks as if the whole proposal for reform of the staff rules will be put on the back-burner as the Council (member states) tries to develop a common position on this dossier. Undoubtedly this is not easy, considering the different approaches to employment rights, wage-setting and austerity across the EU. How the Council will react to the revolving doors amendments is also not clear, but surely it is not inconceivable that amendments aimed at improving ethics and transparency in Brussels would play well with domestic audiences.

What is clear from the evidence collected by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is that the EU's ethics rules are overdue a revamp. Both ALTER-EU's report and CEO's RevolvingDoorWatch highlight cases where the EU institutions have failed to take the issue of the revolving door seriously, leaving open the risk that officials and former officials will provoke conflicts of interests when they go through the revolving door between the EU institutions and the lobby industry.

Even if it is many months before the new rules are finalised via the tripartite Parliament-Council-Commission process, the EU institutions could do much more right now to effectively implement the revolving door rules that are already in place.

The Commission has told ALTER-EU that its revolving door campaign “shows that in a few cases, former members of staff, in particular contract agents, did not comply with their obligations to inform the Institution in due time [of their new proposed activities, in order to seek approval]. The Commission is therefore willing to continue and increase its awareness-raising activities.

It is good that the Commission finally acknowledges that there are gaps in how staff are informed and reminded of their obligations. CEO has tabled a series of access to documents requests to nine different Commission DGs (directorates) to ask about the briefing materials they provide to staff about how they should handle ethics and potential conflicts of interest. The responses have revealed a very mixed picture. Some DGs wholly rely on the materials that DG Human Resources (the lead DG in this area) provides; others produce their own guides. Ironically, DG Human Resources could learn something from some of these other DGs which appear to provide more detailed explanations of the revolving door rules and how they should be interpreted.

But this is not just about getting staff to apply under the rules. Even more importantly, the Commission should effectively implement the rules when it looks at applications. The Commission has the right to forbid officials from undertaking future work which could provoke a conflict of interest – yet they have chosen to do this only once in the past four years, among more than 340 applications. And with no clear definition in use of what constitutes a conflict of interest, this is perhaps not surprising.

The Commission, and other EU institutions, could usefully look at the US rules where federal officials are banned entirely from 'switching sides' to lobby on the specific issues they worked on and are banned for two years from working on a broader range of issues.

Some might think that all this seems technical, nerdy and bureaucratic - but surely this is a small price to pay to better regulate the revolving door between the EU's 50,000+ staff and Brussels' 15,000+ lobbyists?

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