May 25, 2010
The recent cases of former European commissioners moving to industry positions involve very obvious potential conflicts of interest.
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) has written to the European Commission asking it to review its decisions to approve the moves of Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Meglena Kuneva and Charlie McCreevy and to refrain from approving the move of Günter Verheugen.
The transfers of Ferrero-Waldner, Kuneva and McCreevy to Munich Re, BNP Paribas and Ryanair respectively were seemingly approved without any serious conditions being imposed. In the case of Verheugen, the Commission was not even notified of his move to the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS): constituting a clear breach of the Commission’s own code of conduct.
In some cases, the EU executive has argued that the commissioner in question was not directly responsible for matters affecting the new employer and that when the move concerns a non-executive position there is no conflict of interest.
However, all decisions taken by the college of commissioners are collective by nature, thus involving all former commissioners in issues that could potentially be relevant to their new employers.
Moreover, all four cases raise serious questions about the ability of the Commission to regulate in the public interest and to prevent commissioners from being influenced by post-employment considerations while still in office.
There is a real risk that former commissioners moving swiftly to the private sector might exploit their previous status to unduly influence their former staff and colleagues on behalf of their new employers. And corporations themselves acknowledge seeking beneficial insider knowledge and contacts through the hiring of ex-commissioners. For instance, when announcing the appointment of Mr Verheugen, RBS’ Ingrid Hengster clearly stated that, “his experience in European politics and its national and international contacts are very valuable for RBS”.
How the Commission will deal with these four cases will affect its credibility in the long term. In the current context of a severe financial and economic crisis, the consequences being suffered by citizens are mostly due to the irresponsible behaviour of financial players. Especially when it comes to former commissioners moving to the banking and insurance sector, the Commission should provide Europeans with strong guarantees that the risks of conflict of interest have been thoroughly considered. Public trust in the European institutions and the Commission’s integrity will be severely eroded if the EU executive fails to act accordingly in these four cases.
The time is ripe for the Commission to start reviewing its own rules regarding the assessment of potential conflicts of interest for former commissioners. The introduction of a three-year cooling-off period and a clearer definition of conflicts of interest are absolutely necessary.
Paul de Clerck
Friends of the Earth Europe
Steering Committee member, ALTER-EU (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation)Author : Letters to the EurActiv editor