It didn't receive much coverage, but the Dutch presidency of the Council of the EU has recently shepherded through a change in the rules relating to former commissioners' transitional allowance. This is the allowance which commissioners receive when they leave office, and CEO has long pointed-out the anomaly of ex-commissioners receiving a generous three years' allowance (worth between 40 per cent and 65 per cent of their final commissioner salary) when their revolving door obligations only last for 18 months.
Under the new rules, the allowance will now only be paid-out for two years, not three. This rule change will only be applied to future or re-appointed commissioners, so we will have to wait quite some time to see what impact it has. Undoubtedly some will applaud a reduction in taxpayers' money being used to cushion the blow of leaving office for already-well rewarded commissioners. Yet there was a good rationale behind the allowance, to prevent exiting commissioners needing to accept new roles which create a risk of conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, despite tinkering with the transitional allowance, no changes have been made to commissioners' revolving door rules themselves.
The current 18 month revolving door rules which forbid ex-commissioners from certain kinds of lobbying and which require new roles to be authorised, are far too short. Afterall, networks, contact books and insider know-how remain relevant 18 months on, even two years on. CEO remains committed to the view that the revolving door obligations on ex-commissioners should be extended to a full three years. If this needs to be accompanied by a three-year transitional allowance - so be it.
We most recently articulated this view in our October 2015 report which reviewed the 100 or so new roles that former members of the Barroso II Commission had taken since leaving office in October 2014. Our report found that one in three (9 out of 26) outgoing commissioners had gone through the 'revolving door' into roles in corporations or other organisations with links to big business and our concern was the unhealthily close relationship between the EU's executive body and private interests.
The report has yet to receive a formal response from the Commission, although we have been promised one. But someone somewhere has clearly read it, as it compelled Commission Secretary-General Italianer to give a gentle rap on the knuckles to ex-Commissioner Füle, the ex-commissioner for enlargement and European neighbourhood policy. Our report showed that he had accepted new roles, including at the think-tank the Central European Strategy Council, without bothering to inform the Commission, in breach of the rules. Meanwhile, the report has been presented to a hearing of the European Parliament's Budgetary Control Committee whose chair, Dr Graessle MEP, made clear that this was an issue of ongoing importance to the committee.
Transparency is the area where the Commission seems most ready to shift its approach. The Commission now publishes a list of ex-commissioners' authorised roles although the list lacks important details and as a result, we continue to maintain our own, more comprehensive public spreadsheet of which ex-commissioner has gone where.
In another transparency development, in December 2015 the Commission finally published its first annual report on senior officials who left the Commission in 2014 and whose whose new jobs had been screened for possible conflicts of interest. At the time, we published a critical response. New information received under access to documents shows that our cynicism was justified.
The original Commission report featured nine cases of departing senior officials; but in fact during 2014, the Commission issued 22 decisions concerning former senior officials' new roles. But the Commission chose not to release any information on the other 13 cases because it did considered that they did not have any link to lobbying or advocacy. In our view, this is an overly-narrow interpretation of the rules (article 16 of the Staff Regulations) which asks for a “list of the cases assessed”. The Commission has also confirmed, again wrongly in our view, that the list only includes roles which it authorised, and does not include roles which it rejected, which again, seems overly-narrow. One case was blocked, because of conflict of interest concerns, and that is profiled on our RevolvingDoorWatch database.
The European Ombudsman, who will shortly close her inquiry into the Commission's handling of the revolving door, welcomed the publication of the list, although she pointed out that the Commission has only met the “legal minimum timeframe required”. She maintains her recommendation to the Commission to publish the names more regularly. So do we. December 2016 is very long time to wait to find out about Commission decisions made about senior officials who left in 2015!
Meanwhile, at the end of April 2016, the 18 month revolving door obligations (the ban on lobbying and the duty to seek authorisation for new roles) on former members of the last Commission will cease. Will the Barroso II revolving door spin even faster at that point? We will continue to keep a watching eye and we urge Juncker to do the right thing and extend the revolving door obligations on all departing commissioners to a full three years.