Commission must lead way on issue of conflict of interest, says Ombudsman

Emily O’Reilly is undertaking an inquiry into ‘revolving doors’ phenomenon

European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has said the European Commission must be a role model for other institutions in how it deals with the issue of conflict of interest.

Addressing the European Parliament’s budgetary affairs committee in Brussels yesterday, Ms O’Reilly updated MEPs on her ongoing investigation into the so-called “revolving door” phenomenon, whereby former European Commission officials and commissioners take up positions with companies and lobby groups, many of whom have an active interest in legislation that has been formed by the commission.

“Given the breadth of the work, given the commercial reach and sensitivity of a significant part of this work, and given its leadership role it plays within the administration, it is important in my view that the commission seeks to become a role model for others in this area,” Ms O’Reilly said.

She said while there were rules and structures in place to monitor conflict of interest issues within the commission, “there is an issue in relation to the implementation of rules and a reluctance to impose sanctions when rules are broken”.

“If the rules are to be taken seriously and if there is to be effective implementation of the rules . . .[individuals involved] need to see that sanctions are applied,” the former Irish ombudsman said. One solution to effective implementation could be the establishment of an independent body to decide on individual cases.

The office of the ombudsman is currently examining European Commission files over the past three years. While the inquiry was prompted by a complaint about 10 individual cases, the ombudsman said she was open to investigate any new complaints that may arise during the inquiry as well as “own-initiative” cases that the ombudsman becomes aware of during the course of the inquiry.

Ms O’Reilly said she expects a response from the European Commission by the end of this month to a series of questions that have been submitted. They raise a number of questions concerning the assessment process by which staff requests to undertake outside activity are approved. They also suggest the possible establishment of an online register of staff applications which would show a detailed reasoning of the application process.

Concern about the close connections between European officials and lobbyists has come to light in recent years, following a number of high-profile cases. In late 2012, EU health commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign following allegations of his involvement in a tobacco bribery scandal.

More recently, a senior European commission lawyer who had been involved in the Microsoft anti-trust cases, left the commission on an unpaid leave of absence to work for computer giant Apple.

Separately yesterday, MEPs in the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee backed plans to oblige lobbyists to sign the European Commission’s transparency register. Established in 2011, the transparency register, which lists the names of companies, NGOs and lobbyists who engage with the European institutions, is not compulsory.

The European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee called yesterday for the introduction of incentive measures to encourage more lobby groups to sign up to the register.