Revolving doors processes should be 'more robust'

23 September 2014

European Ombudsman demands far-reaching changes to Commission's handling of revolving door cases

A ruling by the European Ombudsman today that the European Commission should make its processes on revolving doors cases 'more robust' to avoid conflicts of interest, has been welcomed by Friends of the Earth Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory, Greenpeace, LobbyControl and SpinWatch.

The verdict of the European Ombudsman comes two years after a group of NGOs first raised the issue of how the European Commission handles revolving door issues with her office. The verdict reads: "This inquiry, which was prompted by complaints made by a number of NGOs, has revealed systemic maladministration in the implementation of some aspects of the Commission's approach to the "revolving doors" phenomenon." 

Natacha Cingotti from Friends of the Earth Europe, one of the complainants in this case, says: "The Commission's failure to tighten up the revolving door erodes citizens' trust in the EU and it can also have real consequences on regulations protecting public health, safety and the environment. EU officials have the duty to act 'solely with the interests of the Union in mind' and they must not be allowed to move between powerful corporate groups that have a commercial interest in influencing the EU's decisions in the same field."

Jorgo Riss of Greenpeace says: "Recruiting via the revolving door is one of the most important tactics available to big business lobbyists and we've been concerned about it for years. The European Ombudsman has today made some important recommendations which should bring a tougher approach and more transparency to this area. It is key that, in the Ombudsman's own words, the Commission has "a comprehensive and properly documented review process when staff leave to work outside"."

Key among the 16 recommendations and suggestions from the Ombudsman are the following. The Commission should:

  • Ensure that the assessment of revolving door applications is carried out by staff who have not had any direct professional connections with the official concerned (recommendation E)
  • Inform staff that their duty "always to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits" is not time-limited (recommendation F)
  • Publish the revolving doors cases of senior officials online (suggestion K)
  • Create an internal centralised register of: (I) staff applications to work outside the Commission and (II) conflict of interest assessments of incoming staff (suggestion M)

The Ombudsman also suggests that she is notified about any Commission decision not to publish a revolving door case involving a senior official and that she will inspect any such case files saying she "will not hesitate to use her full powers, including the obligation on officials to testify before her office, in cases of doubt as to the proper application of the conflicts of interest rules" (suggestion L).

Timo Lange of LobbyControl, another complainant in this case, says: "It's clear that Commission staff should not be assessing each others' revolving door cases and it is long overdue for the Commission to be transparent in this area. But we especially welcome the Ombudsman's commitment to remain "on constant alert regarding conflict of interest issues involving senior members of staff" [5] and to inquire into the implementation of the revised rules during 2015.[6] Both these steps will be important if the wider public is to have confidence in the Commission's actions."

Additional to the Ombudsman's ruling today, the NGOs consider that further changes are needed in the Commission's revolving door policy and practice. Afterall, research reveals ongoing concerns about the way in which the Commission handles the cases of incoming and outgoing officials.[7]

Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory, another complainant, concludes: "The Ombudsman welcomes the role of civil society in ensuring that conflicts of interest rules are followed and we will continue to be vigilant as we learn of new possible cases of conflicts of interest arising from the revolving door. Today's ruling focuses on Commission staff, but it should also give an important signal to the Commission about revolving door cases more generally. This is very timely in a year of change-over in Brussels and with a large number of current commissioners leaving and likely moving into new jobs from November."

Friends of the Earth Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory, Greenpeace, LobbyControl and SpinWatch consider that the Commission should:

  • Embrace a far stricter approach in order to prevent conflicts of interest, including the risks of direct and indirect lobbying, and the threat of policy capture
  • Introduce independent assessment of conflicts of interest. Ultimately we would propose a fully independent and empowered revolving door review committee is set up, but in the interim, an independent advisory committee could do the work
  • Develop a far more comprehensive way to assess the revolving door moves of contract staff, who are currently not covered by the Commission's rules.