A once in a decade opportunity

You've probably never heard of the 'Staff Regulations of Officials of the European Communities' but this 150-page tome and its associated annexes constitute 'The Bible' of terms of conditions for the 50,000 plus staff who work across the EU institutions and agencies. It also sets out the ethical obligations for staff including around confidentiality and handling conflicts of interest.

This document is currently the subject of a heated debate between staff trade unions and the Commission as it is up for review, and both the Council and the Commission want to see European officials sharing the austerity being experienced across the member states.

Just before Christmas, the Commission published its proposals for reforming the Staff Regulations. It wants staff levels to be cut by five per cent, staff to work a longer week, the retirement age to be extended, and some lower-ranked staff to receive a reduced salary. Not surprisingly, staff trade unions have a lot to say about this agenda, on behalf of their members. And while the stereotype of a bloated Brussels bureaucracy needing to be cut down to size might play well in the right-wing media, the Commission's 30,000 staff is actually smaller than some member states' government departments. Compared to the wide range of lawmaking and policy-making tasks which the Commission has been given, the number of staff is even on the low side.

Aside from the thorny debate about staff terms and conditions, the Staff Regulations are a crucial document as they contain ethics rules governing staff conduct during and after they leave office. Evidence from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) and Corporate Europe Observatory show that some of these rules are not well-known, well-followed or well-implemented.

This is particularly true for the rules governing the revolving door, when officials leave public office and join the Brussels lobby industry, or when lobbyists become public officials. The revolving door is at the heart of the close relationship between the EU institutions and big business, and the rules that are currently in place contain weaknesses, loopholes and to often appear to be ignored entirely.

For example, temporary officials (sometimes working for several years) at an EU institution are not automatically covered by the rules (see the case of Marten Westrup); there is no ban on officials moving directly into lobby jobs (see the cases of Mogens Peter Carl, Bruno Dethomas, Jean-Philippe Monod de Froideville); and there is culture of sanctioning breaches in the rules (see the cases of John Bruton and Derek Taylor). Additionally, EU staff can take a sabbatical and there is no outright ban on them becoming lobbyists or senior industry leaders during that period (see the case of Magnus Ovilius).

Now all eyes are on the Parliament, specifically the Legal Affairs or JURI committee, as it considers the Commission's proposal to reform the Staff Regulations. This could provide a once-in-10-years opportunity to tighten the revolving door rules.

And during these times of high unemployment across Europe, of austerity, of radical wage cuts in many sectors and countries, of falling support for the idea of the EU and the EU institutions, it can surely be no bad thing to overhaul the rules around ethical conduct of public office to ensure the highest standards, decision-making in the public (not private) interest, and the elimination of the risk of conflicts of interest.

Hopefully EU officials themselves will agree on the need for the highest levels of ethical conduct. As welcome support, the biggest Commission staff union published a statement in their December 2011 magazine to say that “L’USF exige une réglementation du passage des hauts fonctionnaires, commissaires et parlementaires du service public européen au secteur privé afin d’éviter les conflits d’intérêts contraires aux intérêts des citoyens européens” (“The USF demands that senior officials, commissioners and MEPs who move from serving the European public interest to the private sector are subject to rules, so as to avoid conflicts of interest contrary to the interests of European citizens”).

ALTER-EU and CEO agree. The Parliament has a unique opportunity to consider this issue and to tackle apparent Commission complaisance about staff ethics. We hope it will accept this challenge.

This blog has also been published by the Social Europe Journal.