Uber files: EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly calls for ‘culture change at the top’

Exclusive: Revelations about Uber a ‘masterclass’ in lobbying that suggests need for standard EU rules on revolving doors, Irish watchdog chief says

The European Union’s independent ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has called for a change in culture at the top of European institutions after a leak of Uber documents revealed that lobbying by the cab-hailing company reached into the highest levels of EU and national leadership.

“I think every EU official should read it in its totality, to see that just the range of things that are used in order to influence regulation and laws,” Ms O’Reilly said of the Uber Files, describing the revelations as “a masterclass in lobbying”.

Existing rules need to be enforced to prevent conflicts of interest and stop public officials using their connections and insider knowledge for commercial gain if lured away to the private sector, Ms O’Reilly said — but this alone would not be enough.

“If you have a culture which is a little bit indulgent ... then this will continue,” she said in an interview with The Irish Times. “There has to be a change of culture at the top.”

The cache of internal communications, leaked by Uber’s former top lobbyist for Europe Mark MacCann to the Guardian newspaper and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The Irish Times, revealed how the company closely courted politicians from Joe Biden in the United States to Emmanuel Macron in France.

The European Commission has sent a letter seeking clarification from the Dutch former commissioner Neelie Kroes, after the files suggested she lobbied for Uber during her 18-month “cooling-off period”, in which the jobs that the senior officials can accept are restricted after the end of their mandate, to guard against conflicts of interest. In a written statement to ICIJ, Ms Kroes said: “Consistent with my ethical duties as a former European commissioner, I did not have any formal nor informal role at Uber” before the end of the cooling-off period. She added that during the period she had taken an unpaid role with a Dutch start-up support organisation that required her to “interact with a wide array of business, government and non-governmental entities”. She said she did so at the request of the Dutch government and with the approval of the European Commission.

The ombudsman said the revelations suggested a need for standardised EU rules to counter conflicts of interest and ‘revolving doors’ situations, in which public officials go on to work in the private sector.

“Perhaps there needs to be a European-wide directive in relation to these matters,” she said.

“Because, as you see with the Uber issue, it wasn’t just the EU administration that was being lobbied, it was member states. Different member states were being, shall we say, picked off.

“It’s not enough to make sure that lobbying is managed within the commission. It also has to be managed at [European] Council level, and member-state level.”

Ms O’Reilly led a major investigation into the issue of revolving doors in the European Commission that examined 100 cases of staff who moved into other employment, which was published last year.

While there are procedures in place to protect against conflicts of interest, there is a problem with lax enforcement, she said.

“There are all sorts of rules and regulations, and staff regulations, and people can be forbidden from taking up a job. But that rarely happens,” she said.

“The possibility to make a lot of money, let’s face it, by becoming a lobbyist after a period in public administration is becoming a career option,” O’Reilly said. “It’s almost becoming normalised.”

There needed to be more awareness including among junior officials that they might be targeted for lobbying by wealthy and powerful interests, the ombudsman continued.

“I think it’s a matter of officials at junior level sensitising themselves to the way in which lobbying happens, and being mindful of who you are meeting,” Ms O’Reilly said. “They should know that it’s not for just for the love of their wonderful company and great joke-telling.”

Ms O’Reilly, who has served as the ombudsman since 2013, has the role of promoting good administration in the EU institutions by examining systemic issues and investigating complaints.

This week she is expected to release a critical assessment of the refusal by the European Commission to release text messages between commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla regarding a Covid-19 vaccine contract, an affair known as ‘delete-gate’.

She warned that democratic institutions could not afford to be lax on rules that guard against conflicts of interest.

“I think what Uber has done is show us this hidden reality, and it didn’t work in every country for them, but it certainly worked in some,” Ms O’Reilly said.

“Something like the Uber thing — that erodes public trust. At a time of such political volatility at the moment, so many countries’ governments can’t afford that to happen.”

Read more from The Uber Files

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times