NGOs welcome Ombudsman’s damning report which heavily criticises Commission

Press briefing from LobbyControl, Corporate Accountability International and Corporate Europe Observatory

Yesterday (19 December 2013) the Ombudsman published her decision on NGO complaint 297/2013 which concerned the European Commission's re-appointment of Michel Petite to its ad hoc ethical committee. Earlier this year, NGOs had submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman about Mr Petite's membership of the committee, due to the risk of conflicts of interest emerging from his work for a law firm that lobbies for industry clients. Mr Petite is known to work for tobacco giant Philip Morris. As a result, the Ombudsman wrote to Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič on 26 November saying “my view is that the Commission should revoke its decision to re-appoint the member in question and should appoint another person instead". Finally, on Wednesday 18 December, the Commission announced that Michel Petite had been replaced on the ethical committee, knowing that a critical Ombudsman ruling was on the way.

Commenting on the publication of the European Ombudsman's decision, LobbyControl’s Ulrich Mueller today said:

“We really welcome the European Ombudsman's actions in response to our complaint. She was right to suggest to the Commission that it should revoke its appointment of Michel Petite to the ad hoc ethical committee and we are pleased that the Commission has finally taken action, although that action comes far too late. In one particular aspect of the case, the Ombudsman says that the Commission's view was both “inconceivable and naïve”. This is a real rebuke to President Barroso and Secretary-General Catherine Day who repeatedly defended the re-appointment of Michel Petite in the face of substantive concerns from NGOs and MEPs.”

Speaking on behalf of Corporate Europe Observatory, another complainant in this case, Olivier Hoedeman added:

“The Ombudsman makes important comments about the Commission's failure to act against conflicts of interest and we consider that these should have a wider application across the Commission. In fact, we consider that this ruling sets an important precedent. The Commission should be far more realistic about the “possibility” or risk that a conflict of interest might exist in a particular situation and should thus take action accordingly. At the moment, the Commission generally refuses to act unless they are presented with an actual proof of a concrete conflict of interest, which entirely misses the point. We hope that the Commission will instigate a review into how it handles conflicts of interest, to take account of this important ruling.”

The Ombudsman's ruling

The NGOs (LobbyControl, Corporate Accountability International and Corporate Europe Observatory) had complained to the Ombudsman about the re-appointment of Michel Petite to the Commission’s ad hoc ethical committee (which assesses the revolving door moves of former commissioners) in December 2012. Michel Petite had already had his own controversial spin through the revolving door from the Commission's Legal Service to Clifford Chance in 2008. Meanwhile, Clifford Chance’s clients are known to include tobacco firm Philip Morris, and Michel Petite was known to be representing clients to the Commission. The Ombudsman’s decision on the complaint is strongly worded and contains a damning assessment of the Commission’s decision to re-appoint Michel Petite (referred to as Member A by the Ombudsman).

In particular, the Ombudsman said:

Petite “has a role representing private interests that could impact negatively on the manner in which he exercises his role on the Ad hoc Ethical Committee.” (Para 67)

The Ombudsman “finds the Commission's view that Member A then contacted the Commission in his capacity as a former official both inconceivable and naïve.” (Para 69)

“No conflicts of interests involving members of the Ad hoc Ethical Committee should be tolerated”. (Para 70)

The Ombudsman wrote to Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič on 26 November 2013 to indicate her initial findings. In that letter she made very clear that the “mere possibility that behaviour could be influenced by private interests” constitutes a conflict of interest. To that the end she asks the following question: “I would like to invite you to consider whether the Commission really believes that reasonable citizens with common sense would be convinced that there is no possibility that the work of the ad hoc ethical committee could be influenced by the client-related activities of the member in question?”

Three weeks later, on 18 December 2013, the Commission made a low-profile announcement that “Mr Petite recently informed the Commission that he wished to resign as a member of the Committee”.

The three NGOs published an initial reaction to this news on 18 December.

Need for action to control lobbying by Big Tobacco

An important element of this case involved the tobacco industry lobby. Philip Morris is a client of Clifford Chance, Michel Petite's law firm, and Petite had had meetings with the Commission on tobacco legislation in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, tobacco industry lobbying hit new heights as the Tobacco Products Directive was voted upon by the European Parliament.

John Stewart, Director of the Challenge Big Tobacco campaign at Corporate Accountability International said:

“For decades, Big Tobacco has aggressively attempted to block, weaken, and delay health measures that protect people from its deadly products around the world. The EU is not exempt from such interference. In fact, the Tobacco Products Directive has been significantly weakened due to Big Tobacco’s aggressive lobbying and misinformation campaigns. Given this history, it’s crucial that the EU takes every step it can to fulfil its obligations under the global tobacco treaty, which requires it to implement strong safeguards against the tobacco industry interference in public health policy-making, including protections against revolving door cases like Mr Petite's.”


Next steps

The Ombudsman reminds the Commission of its earlier commitment to create a specific page on its website relating to the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee and its work. However, the campaigners believe that the Commission's ad hoc ethical committee should be replaced with a fully independent ethics committee where the members are drawn from experts in national ethics administration and have not had a history in the Commission. Transparency campaigners expect to write to President Barroso about this matter in early 2014.

It is vital that the Commission has an ethics body which is fit for purpose to assess European commissioners' new jobs in 2014 when they leave office. Up to 20 current commissioners are expected to move to another job after the European elections and campaigners hope this ruling will ensure that none accept jobs which provoke the risk of a conflict of interest.

In addition, the Commission must become far more ambitious and proactive in securing ethics and transparency in its relations with lobbyists, starting with ensuring mandatory lobby transparency, including for law firms like Clifford Chance, which has yet to sign up to the EU’s voluntary lobby register.