TI calls for closing of ethics gap in Code of Conduct for European Commissioners

Issued by Transparency International Liaison Office to the European Union



Transparency International (TI) is strongly concerned about the risk of conflict of interest when former European Commissioners assume lucrative positions in the private sector, and requests a review of the Code of Conduct for European Commissioners.

A fierce integrity debate flared up when ex-Commissioners Ferrero-Waldner, Verheugen, McCreevy and Kuneva assumed corporate jobs which may profit from their former roles within one year after they left office at the European Commission (EC). The current Code of Conduct for Commissioners stipulates that former European Commissioners may not assume roles related to their previous portfolios for a period of at least one year.

Ex-Commissioners are obliged to inform the Commission about their new jobs and, if there is a connection to their previous portfolios, the Commission will seek opinion from an Ad Hoc Ethical Committee. From the aforementioned cases, ex-Commissioner McCreevy's recent appointment at the low-cost airlines company Ryanair was approved by the committee, while decisions on ex-Commissioners Verheugen and Kuneva are expected in the coming weeks.

However, the committee lacks any formal criteria on which to base its judgments, and there are no systematic reporting arrangements or complaint procedures to address issues around post-office employment. Moreover, the Code of Conduct lacks a clear and effective enforcement mechanism.

The code’s shortcomings and the reputational risks it poses are clearly illustrated in a recent independent study commissioned by the European Parliament Committee on budgetary control. Last week, the Parliament once more stressed the need to revise the Code of Conduct in order to remedy its shortcomings.

Addressing these ethical gaps is critical to effectively prevent conflicts of interest and revolving doors between public and private office, promote ethical behaviour and ultimately build public trust in the Commission. The Commission has a unique chance to lead the field in post-office employment regulation, as many member states lack sufficiently robust legislation on cooling-off periods and look to the EU for guidance on how to regulate politicians' post-office employment in the private sector.

The following steps should be taken to prevent conflicts of interest and uphold the integrity of the European Commission:

  1. A cooling-off period of at least two years to mitigate the risk of a potential conflict of interest. A two-year post-office employment restriction reduces the possibility of 'insider information' and of EU Commissioners charged with potentially forging bridges between public and private sectors. Every three years, most key EU officials (and former staff members of Commissioners) change positions within the EC. Moreover, the EU debate and policy development advances to such a degree that insider information of a former EU official tends to lose most of its relevance. Thus, a period of at least 2 years represents a significant trade-off that balances the legitimacy of the Commission with the future entitlements of the Commissioner.
  2. A comprehensive, transparent and formal assessment procedure to assess whether post-office employment is compatible with former Commission duties, and to make the assessments public. Strict, public criteria would ensure the transparency of assessment procedures and significantly reduce potential conflicts of interest.
  3. Clear guidelines on enforcement in cases that breach post-office employment rules. Current instruments of enforcement include, but are not limited to, withholding pensions from former commissioners assuming incompatible post-office employment (framework of Treaty articles 213(2) in conjunction with Article 216,) and referring to national sanctions where ethical conduct infringes national or civil law. With this in mind, the Commission ought to consider using the instruments available or devising more politically viable enforcement alternatives.

“EU citizens’ trust in European institutions is at risk if its highest political representatives ignore their own Code of Conduct”, says Jana Mittermaier, the head of the TI EU office in Brussels. TI echoes the oath which every European Commissioner is required to take and which obliges them to “respect, both during and after the term of office, the obligations arising there from and, in particular, the duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance after they have ceased to hold office of certain appointments or benefits”.

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