Strict new anti-graft code for European commissioners

By on 20/09/2017
Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, announced a new code of conduct for EC officials (Image courtesy: Factio popularis).

The president of the European Commission has tightened up the code of conduct for its officials, in a bid to raise ethical standards and police the border between lobbyists and commission officials.

Jean-Claude Juncker announced the new code, which is subject to approval by the European Parliament, in his 2017 State of the Union address last week. It is due to come into force on 1 February 2018.

The new code extends the “cooling-off period” for commissioners who leave the service from 18 months to two years, with a three-year limitation period for the commission’s president. During that period, departing officials must inform the commission before taking up a new job, and are subject to restrictions on activities such as lobbying.

Slowing the revolving door

The Ad Hoc Ethical Committee, which currently advises the commission on potential conflicts of interest involving officials leaving the service, will be replaced with a new Independent Ethical Committtee.

For the first time, the commission’s decisions on requests from departing officials to work in areas related to their former portfolios will be made public. All decisions made by the Independent Ethical Committee will also be published.

The code requires members of the commission to avoid “any situation which may give rise to a conflict of interest or which may reasonably be perceived as such”, and for the first time defines what amounts to a conflict of interest.

Such a conflict arises “where a personal interest may influence the independent performance of their duties”, the code says; these interests include any potential benefit or advantage to members themselves, their spouses, partners or direct family members.

Show me the money

Rules on financial interests are also being tightened, with commissioners required to declare all investments above €10,000 (US$12,000) every year, regardless of whether they involve a potential conflict of interest. And commissioners’ travel expenses will be published every two months.

Juncker explained that the new code “makes clear that commissioners can be candidates in European Parliament elections under the same conditions as everyone else.” And commission officials may stand in national elections, or be chosen by EU political parties as lead candidate or “Spitzenkandidat” for the post of commission president.

The new code was welcomed by European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who has systematically investigated transparency and probity issues within the commission since taking office in 2013.

“EU politicians and public officials must be held to the highest transparency and ethical standards,” she said. “It is important that the public sees that the checks and balances the commission has in place are working.

“Extending the cooling-off period during which former commissioners and commission presidents must inform the commission of their intention to take up a new post and tightening the rules on the declaration of interests should positively contribute to this impression.”

Tickets to ride

Moves to publish more information about commissioners’ travel expenses were welcome as this had led to complaints to the ombudsman in the past, O’Reilly said, adding that the office has an on-going case concerning travel expenses.

“I will examine the proposed changes in detail, in particular to verify that the new rules satisfactorily address issues that have been raised with my office,” she said.

The commission removed the chairman of the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee in 2013, after the ombudsman found a conflict of interest. The new code appears to meet the ombudsman’s recommendations that the committee should be given a stronger base and routinely publish its findings, and that the code of conduct be strengthened.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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