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New Code of Conduct for Commissioners: only small reform steps to close the “revolving door”

On 31 January 2018, the Commission presented the revised new Code of Conduct for EU Commissioners. It does not manage to solve the existing “revolving door” problem of the EU Commission, but only slightly delays it.

When in July 2016, the public became aware that former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso shortly after the 18-month standstill period had expired, had accepted an important job at Goldman Sachs International, his successor Jean-Claude Juncker realised that there was need for action. Due to media reporting and having come under pressure because of severe criticism, Commission President Juncker declared that the current Code of Conduct from 2011 was in need of reform.

The problem of the “swinging revolving door”, the quick changeover between business and politics, is extremely present and its regulation (so far) insufficient: for example, Corporate Europe Observatory has documented, that even during the short 18-monthn cooling-off phase, nine of 26 ex-members of the last outgoing Commission had accepted new jobs with or in close association with major corporations. Even according to the then existing ethical rules, the new jobs of four ex-Members of the European Commission should not have been approved as clear conflicts of interest existed.

Already announced in 2016 and now put into action, the cooling-off phase of currently 18 months will be increased to two years for former Members of the European Commission and to three years for the President of the Commission. This is basically a right, but not a sufficient reform step. During the cooling-off phase, there is an obligation to inform when a new occupation has been accepted. In addition, the Code of Conduct contains a newly introduced definition, explaining when a “conflict of interest” has occurred. However, the new Code of Conduct does not provide for a more far-reaching three-year standstill phase for all EU Commissioners – as it had been foreseen in the Giegold Report of the EU Parliament.

As past examples have shown, the key to success would be strict and independent monitoring as well as appropriate sanctions to prevent the acceptance of jobs, which present a conflict of interest. Even though the Ethics Committee, which had been assigned under Commission President Juncker to examine the Barroso case, severely criticised the latter's conduct, it did not impose further sanctions. Equally little satisfying was the résumé in the case of former Commissioner for Digital Change, Neelie Kroes, who prior to and during her active time as Commissioner had also been the director of an offshore company on the Bahamas, without ever disclosing the fact. The then evaluation of the Ethics Committee: even though a violation of the Commission’s Code of Conduct had occured, the Commissioner could not be held accountable because of her presumed lack of knowledge regarding the continuance of her second job. As a result, in this case too no further sanctions were imposed.

Instead of the current “ad hoc” Committee, the new Code of Conduct foresee a so-called “independent Ethics Committee“ - unfortunately its title is more promising than the actual content: the Committee still can only advise and recommend; it is still dependent on the Commission and cannot start examinations on its own initiative. What is new is that the Commission – in those case in which the case is not referred to ECJ – can issue and publish warnings if the Code has been violated. However, it is doubtful whether such measures are enough to discourage ex-Commissioners to go through the revolving door.

It has to be welcomed that according to the new Code, the travel expenses of the Members of the European Commission will also be published. Here, some EU Commissioners had come under criticism because of expensive private flights. From February 2018, the travel expenses of individual Commissioners will be published every two months.

Furthermore, a new regulation on financial investments has been introduced, according to which Commissioners have to declare all investments over EUR 10,000. The new Code of Conduct also enshrines the opportunity that in future, a person can stand for elections to the EU Parliament without being released as a Commissioner.

Further information:

EK: New Code of Conduct strengthening ethical rules for Members of the European Commission enters into force, 31.1.2018

EK: Code of Conduct 2018

Corporate Europe Observatory: Juncker’s unremarkable reform of Commissioners’ ethics rules, 5.12.2017

TI Europa: New code of conduct: a small step for the Commission, an even smaller step in ethics reform, 1.2.2018

Access Info Europe, European Commission formalises commitment to public travel expenses, 2.2.2018

AK Europa: Lobbying in Brussels: One step forward and two back?, 15.9.2016

AK Brochure “Lobbying in Brussels”

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Photo: EC Audivisual Service
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