2014 needs a new year resolution to tackle the revolving door
Two new revolving door cases published today by Corporate Europe Observatory illustrate how the revolving door continues to spin between the EU institutions and the corporate sector, and how the EU needs a far tougher approach to tackling potential conflicts of interest.
The first case involves top European Central Bank adviser Christian Thimann who recently moved to insurance giant AXA and it demonstrates the woeful lack of revolving door rules for staff at this important EU institution. Meanwhile, the second revolving door case of Gayle Kimberley (of Dalligate infamy) shows that the European Council and other EU institutions need a far tougher approach to conflicts of interest when their staff undertake sabbaticals.
Revised EU revolving door rules, under the guise of the Staff Regulations, kicked in on 1 January 2014 and they include some small improvements, although nothing which would have tackled the issues raised by the cases of Thimann and Kimberley. Far more reform is required.
From the ECB to AXA
Last week, Christian Thimann, previously a top adviser to Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), was due to start a new job as head of public affairs for AXA, one of Europe's biggest insurance companies.
The ECB is one of the EU's most important institutions: it is responsible for setting interest rates and monetary policy for the euro zone and Thimann had been one of Draghi's most trusted advisers. In January 2013, Reuters reported that: “Draghi has found an ally in German Christian Thimann, his chief adviser or "consigliere". Draghi talks to Thimann daily, has promoted him, and uses him to help sharpen views and plans...”.
When contacted for this article about his revolving door move, Mr Thimann told CEO: “The ECB has established rules that protect against possible conflicts of interest for current and former employees. These rules were fully respected, including that of timely information of discussions with a prospective employer.”
But apart from general provisions regarding conflicts of interest, professional secrecy and insider-trading, the ECB has no specific power or duty to investigate proposed revolving door moves by departing staff. Instead, departing ECB staff are only required to “inform” their immediate superior of any prospective employment that could cause a conflict of interest.
A minute of the ECB's Executive board meeting held on 15 October 2013 shows that the ECB board agreed to remove Thimann “by the end of this week from all duties that require access to monetary policy related or any other market sensitive inside information … so as to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest”. Yet AXA had announced its recruitment of Thimann on 30 September, several weeks earlier. In other words, there are clear signs that Thimann was allowed to continue to work on sensitive matters well after it was known he was about to move to the private financial sector.
It seems clear to CEO that the ECB needs to urgently develop some rigorous rules regarding the revolving door. The ECB should not just be informed about new job moves but should have the duty to assess and then authorise, restrict or even reject proposed jobs which could be problematic on conflict of interest grounds.
From Council lawyer to tobacco lobbyist and back again?
Another, entirely unrelated, revolving door case relates to Gayle Kimberley who, while on sabbatical from the European Council where she works as a lawyer, became a key player in the Dalligate scandal.
The Dalligate scandal saw the acrimonious departure of the European Health Commissioner John Dalli in October 2012 following an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) which had been prompted by a complaint from tobacco company Swedish Match. The firm alleged that an associate of Dalli (Silvio Zammit) had offered to set up meetings with the commissioner, with a view to changing the Tobacco Products Directive in the company’s favour, in return for €60 million. Dalli has consistently denied these allegations and has taken both the European Commission and Swedish Match to court.
In late 2011, Gayle Kimberley was hired by Swedish Match as their Maltese representative and she was paid €5000 to meet the commissioner and undertake lobbying, particularly around their product 'snus'. She was apparently present at the meeting at which Zammit allegedly asked Swedish Match for the multi-million euro bribe.
Kimberley now features on RevolvingDoorWatch because her paid lobbying work on behalf of Swedish Match took place while she was on sabbatical from the European Council where she had been working as a lawyer until January 2011. In December 2013, the European Council confirmed to CEO that Kimberley remains “an official of the Council of the European Union”! This is totally remarkable: revolving door rules should have been applied to Kimberley's new activity of acting as a tobacco industry lobbyist and in CEO's view, it is very shocking that the Council has allowed her to undertake paid lobbying activities, including with a commissioner.
Kimberley has not responded to CEO about these matters and an attempt to gain further information from the European Council via access to documents in March 2013 has failed to shed much light on the situation.
These cases illustrate how the EU institutions, including the Commission, the Council and the ECB, need tough revolving door rules which are fit for purpose. We suggest these rules should include the following:
A mandatory cooling-off period of at least two years for all EU institution staff members (three years for the most senior officials) entering new posts which involve lobbying or advising on lobbying, or any other role which provokes a conflict of interest with their work as an EU official
Staff on temporary contracts should not be (largely) excluded from the revolving door rules, which is the current situation
No official on sabbatical from an EU institution should be allowed to undertake lobbying vis a vis any EU institution
A comprehensive and up-to-date list of all revolving door cases should be published on EU institutions’ websites.