Commission documents confirm need for new conflicts of interest rules

15 December 2010

Brussels – Documents obtained under freedom of information rules and released today by Friends of the Earth Europe [1] reinforce the need to strengthen safeguards against conflicts of interest for former European Commissioners. The 86 documents relate to the approval procedures for six former Commissioners who left the Commission this year and took up positions in the private sector.

The documents shed new light on the Commission’s approval process related to the cases of former Commissioners Joe Borg, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Mariann Fischer-Boel, Meglena Kuneva, Charlie McCreevy and Louis Michel. Their publication follows scandals about the moves of several members of the 2004-2009 Commission to the private sector [2].

Paul de Clerck from Friends of the Earth Europe said: "Overall the documents reveal the lack of consistency in the Commission’s current approach. Cases are being dealt with differently, with no systematic investigation into whether or not there is a potential conflict of interest. It is not enough to consider only whether the former Commissioner is taking an executive position. It is high time for the Commission to review its rules and to make sure there is a thorough and independent investigation for each and every case.

"A clear definition of conflicts of interest is urgently needed, as is a mandatory cooling-off period of at least three years. Friends of the Earth Europe believes that conflicts of interest exist in the cases of at least four former Commissioners exposed in these documents. The Commission should review these cases and should not to approve the move of former Commissioner Verheugen which is still under review."

In September Friends of the Earth Europe requested copies of communication between the Commission and its former top officials related to their moves to employment in the private sector.

The documents released now under EU freedom of information regulation expose blatant weaknesses in the functioning of the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee (AHEC), which is presented by the Commission as the ultimate safeguard against conflicts of interest. The AHEC does not appear to undertake proper investigation when dealing with the cases, relying on the information provided by former Commissioners themselves instead of external expertise.

The current rules do not prevent Commissioners from negotiating contracts while they are still in office.

Commissioners can currently be cleared of conflicts of interest even when they are hired by companies to lobby, [3] as in the case of McCreevy whose contract with Ryanair states that he will take part in meetings with the Commission. The main criterion for defining a conflict of interest seems to be whether the new Commissioner's position is executive or non-executive, but this is insufficient to prevent a conflict of interest.

In cases deemed likely to bring conflicts of interest, the Commission attaches very weak conditions and relies on the Commissioners' willingness to be cooperative and to act in good faith. No accompanying mechanism ensures that the conditions set by the AHEC actually are respected.

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NOTES

[1] Read a Friends of the Earth Europe briefing paper about the released documents here.

Copies of the original documents can be found here.

[2] Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth Europe, together with the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the EU (ALTER-EU), drew attention to several problematic cases of potential conflicts of interest for former Commissioners: http://www.alter-eu.org/press-releases/2010/09/27/revolving-door-scandal-alter-eu-call

[3] Benita Ferrero Waldner negotiated her contract with Munich Re while she was still in office. Charlie McCreevy was cleared of conflict of interest although his contract with RyanAir clearly includes lobby meetings in Brussels.

[4] After thorough analysis of the documents, Friends of the Earth Europe still believes the cases of former Commissioners Joe Borg, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Meglena Kuneva, and Charlie Mc Creevy present potential conflicts of interest.

[5] Friends of the Earth Europe has previously called on the European Commission not to approve the venture to set up a lobbying consultancy, The European Experience Company, by Mr Verheugen www.foeeurope.org/corporates/pdf/Letter_Commission_Verheugen_August%2031.pdf
The company has been operating for more than eight months and the Commission has yet to reach a conclusion.