Lack of screening burnt the Commission
By Olivier Hoedeman
28.01.2010 / 05:15 CET
The Jeleva episode reflects a deeper need for reform of the EU institutions' rules on conflicts of interest.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the events that led to Rumiana Jeleva's withdrawal as Bulgaria's nominee for the European Commission is that José Manuel Barroso, the Commission's president, seemingly allowed Jeleva to enter her approval hearing with the European Parliament without having thoroughly screened her assets and business connections.
After MEPs voiced concerns at her hearing that her undeclared business interests might create conflicts of interest, Barroso wrote to MEPs indicating that the Commission had not ascertained in advance whether Jeleva's declaration that her statement of interests was ?fully accurate and complete?. The reason, he said, was that the Commission ?relies on the statements of the individual concerned, lacking any specific procedure of control in the Union law in this respect?.
This reference to EU law is odd: according to the 2005 framework agreement on Parliament-Commission relations, ?the president of the Commission shall be fully responsible for identifying a conflict of interest which renders a member of the Commission unable to perform their duties?. The 2005 agreement implies that Barroso must ensure there is a serious, pro-active screening process.
Barroso was pressed on these responsibilities beforehand. The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) wrote to him in November asking how he would guarantee that new commissioners were fully independent and free of conflicts of interest. It has yet to receive a reply.
He was, presumably, also well aware of the concerns voiced by MEPs soon after Jeleva, a former MEP, was nominated in November.
It remains unclear whether Jeleva had any actual conflicts of interest. But even the most elementary screening would have revealed the problem that crippled her candidacy: her failure to declare to the Parliament, when a member of the assembly, that she had an active role in the company Global Consult in 2008-09.
Everything indicates the Commission took a hands-off approach beforehand and then improvised its response.
As the Jeleva episode highlights, asking commissioners-designate to sign a statement of ?absence of conflicts of interest? is not enough. But her case also reflects broader, structural weaknesses in the way in which the Commission deals with potential conflicts of interest. Last May, a 118-page study published by the Parliament's policy department for budgetary affairs argued that the code of conduct for commissioners needed tightening to avoid conflicts of interest. It also accused the Commission of ?complacency, due to its failure to ensure a systematic review?. The current rules, the report concluded, create a ?significant risk? of future scandals. It highlighted, among many other weaknesses, the absence of ?a definition of the term ?conflict of interest'?.
The report also emphasised the need for stricter rules for gifts and hospitality, and for improved transparency on and oversight of commissioners' financial interests and potential conflicts of interest.
The Commission is promising action. Barroso says he will review the commissioners' code of conduct; Algirdas ?emeta, the incoming anti-fraud commissioner, has promised to ensure his fellow commissioners comply with rules on transparency; and Maro? ?efc?ovic?, the commissioner designated to handle administrative matters, has promised to prevent former commissioners and high-level officials from going through the revolving door into positions as industry lobbyists.
But the Parliament too needs to act: the Jeleva episode demonstrates how sketchy and poorly enforced its rules on conflicts of interest remain. Like Jeleva's, many MEPs' declarations of financial interests are incomplete. The Parliament both fails to monitor and punish non-compliance.
The Commission and the Parliament's soft approach on conflicts of interest allows undue influence in decision-making. It also undermines public trust. That has always been a problem, but it may be getting worse. In 2007, when asked by Eurobarometer, 66% said ?there is corruption within the institutions of the European Union?; in November 2009, 76% agreed. It is in EU institutions' own interest to define, identify and end conflicts of interest.
Olivier Hoedeman is a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory.