A worrying number of officials go through the 'revolving door', leaving their EU job to work for big business and lobby groups often in the same policy area, says campaign group
Is it right for senior officials in the European Commission jump into lobby jobs, and influence their former colleagues in their new employers' interest? Should a former head of cabinet be entitled to set up her own European Union lobby consultancy? Or a retired energy advisor be allowed to lobby for carbon capture and storage? The commission's rules say such conflicts of interest should be prevented – but the commissioner responsible seems prepared to turn a blind eye.
A worrying number of officials go through the 'revolving door', leaving their EU job to work for big business and lobby groups, often in the same policy area. When this happens, big business gains inside-knowledge, vital contacts, and above all, powerful influence. This helps to make Brussels even more business-dominated and remote from citizens' concerns and the public interest.
More than half of the laws in EU countries come from Brussels, so it is vital that these decisions work in the interests of people and environment. This is particularly true when it comes to reform of an unstable and unfair financial sector, or rules on fossil fuels and harmful environmental practices. Yet many people working in the 'Brussels bubble' appear to have lost touch with the real world. The result is an all too-cosy relationship between the EU and big business.
Time and time again, the commission has failed to take the this problem seriously, despite well-documented cases
where potential conflicts of interest have not been properly addressed. Despite frequent queries and reminders from Corporate Europe Observatory and other watchdogs, it seems to take a laissez-faire approach to implementing the Staff Regulations
– the rules that govern the revolving door.
Indeed there appears to be an institutional lack of scrutiny reflected in the persistent failures to introduce adequate restrictions or cooling-off periods. When breaches do occur, no proper sanctions are being imposed. Civil society groups have been campaigning for the commission to take firmer action against revolving door cases. But commissioner Maros Sefcovic, in charge of transparency issues, has repeatedly dismissed these concerns. This attitude has precipitated a formal complaint
against the commission to the European Ombudsman. The 10 cases in the complaint illustrate that the revolving door problem is alive and well.
John Bruton, the former EU ambassador to the US, claims that he was not made aware of his obligation to gain approval from the commission when he moved to a Brussels lobby firm. After 25 years in the commission's Directorate General Energy, Derek Taylor dived straight into energy lobby consultancy work. He applied for permission two years late, but faced no restrictions or sanctions from the commission. Petra Erler, head of cabinet for former Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen, set up an EU lobby consultancy with Verheugen, on leaving her post. When she applied for permission four months late, the commission ignored the advice of its staff, glossed over the significant risk of conflicts of interest, and imposed only minimal restrictions.
Tackling the revolving door is not about preventing EU staff from taking up new jobs when they leave office. It is about ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to prevent conflicts of interest from blurring the public-interest role of the regulator and the profit-seeking role of the regulated. It means restrictions on contacts with former colleagues, working on the same dossiers or for the same clients, and cooling-off periods.
If there is any doubt of the value that the influence and access brought by former officials has, consider a recent United States study
, which showed that share prices of lobby firms jump when they announce a former public official has been employed. People who know the system and how to work it are priceless when it comes to influencing laws.
But laws should work for the public good, and should be made openly and transparently in democratic institutions. This is why ending the undue influence and privileged access of big business is so important. And why the commission's refusal to acknowledge the revolving door problem, and their role in solving it, is not acceptable.
Rachel Tansey is a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory