Web Summit: Time to stop EU officials becoming lobbyists for tech firms

Emily O’Reilly says not enough is being done to shut “revolving door” of officials moving into lobbying jobs for private firms

Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman: Not enough is being done to regulate the “revolving door” of officials from EU institutions moving into jobs where they were lobbying for private companies.

Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman: Not enough is being done to regulate the “revolving door” of officials from EU institutions moving into jobs where they were lobbying for private companies.

 

Elaine Edwards

Not enough is being done to regulate the “revolving door” of officials from EU institutions moving into jobs where they were lobbying for private companies, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said.

Ms O’Reilly said she had launched an investigation last year into the situation whereby officials working for EU institutions could leave and use their inside knowledge elsewhere.

“Information is key to everything and if you have the inside information in relation to a particular regulation, a particular play that’s happening in Europe that is going to to have an impact on the bottom line of your company...then obviously you’re going to try and get as much information as you can,” she said.

The people with the most information were those working in the commission and the various directorates general.

“Obviously if you are a big tech company and there’s a particular regulation coming down the line which you want to influence, if you can recruit somebody freshly minted from the commission who’s had this portfolio, well obviously that’s quite a coup.”

Speaking on the Society stage at the Web Summit, Ms O’Reilly said it was “entirely legitimate” for somebody to move from the private sector to the public sector. But what was not legitimate was if they used inside information for the benefit of the private company that was hiring them.

The commission did have rules for it staff in relation to this “revolving door”, she said. “I’m not convinced that it is monitored adequately and enforced adequately and really the rules have to be tightened.”

A lot of lobbying on legislation, for example, was done “under the radar” and that was the most difficult issue.

It was about finding the point where the level of secrecy involved was legitimate in terms of the legislative process and the consultative process and where it was really not allowing civil society and citizens, or indeed companies and business, in to see what was going on.

Ms O’Reilly said she had made a business case to commissioners to ask them to do this better. They could not allow people to walk out unconditionally to work in an area where they had inside knowledge.

There’s was a “big political play” as well, she said. Some at European level weren’t happy with the fact that Google and some of the other major tech players dominated the European market so much.

“That’s why a lot of US and global tech companies are flooding into Brussels to lobby and to try and influence the very important legislative plays that are going on at the moment.”

Her own role was to ensure transparency in the process.

“You have a lot of big boys and girls now who set up offices specifically to lobby the politicians and members of the commission, and indeed the the members of the European Council as well to try and tweak the legislation or to have the legislation created in such a way that suits their particular market interest, which is entirely legitimate.”

But people had a fundamental right to have legislation in the European Union enacted publicly, she said.

Ms O’Reilly, a former journalist and Ombudsman for Ireland, was elected to the post by the European Parliament in 2013. She was re-elected last year with a five-year mandate.

Ms O’Reilly said the biggest challenge in her role was the cultural one in dealing with different practices across 28 member states.

“Whatever about languages, they all have different cultural understandings of transparency, of data protection, ethics, lobbying, all of that. So it’s trying to find a common high standard and trying to persuade the commission and the council that they have to seek a gold standard and not the lowest common denominator.”

US ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley also spoke at the event, highlighting the importance of the cultural and economic relationships between the US and Ireland.