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Janez Potočnik

Former employer: 
European Commission
Former function: 
Commissioner for the environment
New function: 
Chairman
New employer: 
Forum for the future of agriculture + others
Nationality: 
Slovenia
Policy area: 
Date of Revolving Door: 
December, 2014
Institutional reaction: 

According to Commission documents released to CEO, the Commission approved Potočnik's moves to UN international resource panel and the Forum for the future of agriculture, as well as to become a member of the advisory council of the European Policy Centre (EPC).

The Commission's ad hoc ethical (advisory) committee recommended authorisation of these roles. However, it recommended that Potočnik's activity as chairman of the Forum for the future of agriculture on the condition that “'steering' excludes any involvement, contrary to the Code of Conduct, that could be related to the commercial interests of Syngenta”. For his role at the EPC, the Commission authorised it as long as “Mr Potočnik abstains from any lobbying activity, should the European Policy Centre decide to engage in specific projects related to the field of environment and to appeal for EU funding”.

On 18 March 2015, the Commission further authorised additional roles for Potočnik as (unremunerated) chairman of the RISE Foundation (Rural and Investment Support for Europe Foundation) and (unremunerated) Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAPH) ambassador.

On 15 April 2015, the Commission authorised Potočnik to become chairperson of the CEPF Long-term Vision for the Balkans sub-region of the Mediterranean Biodiversity Hotspot (remunerated for five days work, per diem), as well as a member of the steering committee for A vision for Europe towards sustainable and circular economy (a new partnership between Stiftungsfonds fur Umweltokonomie und Nachalitigkeit (SUN) the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the McKinsey Center for Business & Environment) (to be remunerated on a per diem basis). For the latter, he was told to:

"(1) abide by your obligations deriving from articles 245 and 339 of the TFEU and from the Code of Conduct for Commissioners, and notably as concerns the protection of the confidentiality and the collégial ity of the matters dealt with by the Commission during your three Commission mandates; and (2) refrain from lobbying the Commission and its services, in the context of your activity as member of the Steering Committee for "A Vision for Europe towards sustainable and circular economy" and, in more general terms, in favor of the Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit, the Ellen McArthur Foundation and the McKinsey Center for Business & Environment"."

Other info: 

Janez Potočnik was a European commissioner for 10 years to November 2014, most recently in the area of the environment. Since leaving the Commission, he has taken on a number of new roles.

On 30 October 2014, he informed the Commission of his intention to accept two new roles namely as chairman of the Forum for the future of agriculture and as a member of the European Policy Centre's advisory council. The date is significant as it was just before the formal end of his mandate, and this implies that Potočnik negotiated his new roles while still in public office. This is something which CEO frowns upon, considering that the transitional allowance (see below) provides more than adequate time to decide upon new professional activities once a commissioner's time in public office has ended.

Forum for the future of agriculture

As the Commission notes, the Forum for the Future of Agriculture was created in March 2008 by the European Landowners' Organisation and Syngenta. The Commission says that:

“Mr Potočnik informed the Commission that the Forum for the Future of Agriculture has a programme of activity focused on the food and environmental security agenda across the European region and that its main platform remains its annual conference which takes place every spring in Brussels.”

The Forum's website says that

“This Conference has now established itself as the premier meeting place for those who have a stake in the future of agriculture and has been addressed by European Commissioners, MEPs, National Government Ministers, Industry Leaders, NGOs, International Organisations, including OECD and FAO, and academics.”

Potočnik also told the Commission that his planned activity with the Forum will be "steering the annual conference programme and list of invitees and chairing the annual conference".

The European Landowners' Organisation (ELO) refers to itself as a think tank in the agricultural, environmental and rural activity sector and it represents landowner and rural interests. It is registered in the EU lobby transparency register, although its registration is significantly out of date; it only includes financial data from 2011 and it does not provide any information about its lobby costs. This cannot be right considering that it has two lobbyists registered with the European Parliament and it reports that a total of 15 people carry out some form of EU lobby activity on its behalf.

Syngenta is one of the world's largest pesticide companies and it too is part of the EU lobby register. In 2013, its lobby budget was €1,250,000 to €1,500,000. Neither Syngenta nor the ELO mentions the Forum for the future of agriculture in their registrations which would appear to be a breach of the register's rules.

In 2011, CEO wrote of the fourth Forum for the future of agriculture:

“What was announced as a 'meeting place for those who have a stake in the future of agriculture' was in fact a tightly orchestrated lobbying event for Syngenta to polish its image and promote its agenda for the reform of EU agricultural policies.”

Janez Potočnik, as then environment commissioner, was one of several commissioners present at that time.

CEO further reported that

“... with the single exception of US writer Lester Brown, who described the looming food crisis with very detailed and alarming facts, critical voices were absent from the conference panels: no environmental NGOs, no public interest groups, no representatives from the organic farming union and no consumers associations were invited to speak.”

For instance, while Syngenta used this platform to boast about its activities to promote bee health, Syngenta is in fact one of the major producers of the bee-killing neonicotinoid insecticides. The company has taken the Commission to court over the partial ban on some of these toxics that was announced in 2013.

In 2014, Syngenta used its Forum as an occasion to push for and counter criticism on the hotly contested EU-US trade deal, TTIP. Farmers, consumers and the environment stand to loose out big time if this deal happens.

Potočnik has told CEO:

“I was as Commissioner for Environment participating quite regularly on FFA since I have believed, and I still do so, that this is one of the best opportunities to prepare agricultural community to necessary changes arising from the need to respect sustainability. The world is challenged by the the very fact that we humans are with our number and activities seriously influencing on the balance of the finite planet. Our responsibility has enormously increased, as individuals, but also collectively and I want to contribute to this inevitable change.”

Other roles

Potočnik has also become co-chairman of the UN Environment Programme's international resource panel which provides “independent, coherent and authoritative scientific assessments on the sustainable use of natural resources and the environmental impacts of resource use over the full life cycle”. As this role is within the UN framework, the Commission did not consider that conflict of interest issues were raised by it.

Potočnik's other new role is as an advisory council member of the Brussels bubble think tank, the European Policy Centre. The EPC's membership is heavily dominated by corporations (such as BP, BASF, Nestle and Philip Morris), lobby firms (Burson-Marsteller, Fleishman-Hillard) and business lobby groups (BusinessEurope, CEFIC, FoodDrinkEurope). In the list of non-governmental organisations there are several 'corporate' NGOs, and only one or two environmental NGOs. While the EPC says it aims to stimulate "public debate" on "issues of crucial importance to the EU", their events are "only open to EPC members, EU officials and the media, unless specified otherwise" ie. not the wider public. The EPC's advisory council is packed full of commissioners (including other recent departees Connie Hedegaard and Joaquin Almunia) as well as former and current MEPs and others. The Commission has told Potočnik that he must abstain from any lobbying activity, should the EPC decide to engage in specific projects related to the field of environment and to appeal for EU funding.

In December, according to his facebook posts, Potočnik spoke at the ELO's biodiversity conference. Since leaving the Commission, Potočnik has also addressed events organised by Friends of the Earth Europe and several other groups on matters related to the environment and resource use etc.

When asked whether his new rules are remunerated, Potočnik has told CEO that

“The work the Commission has authorised me for UNEP and FFA is pro bono, and for the EPC I assume that it will be too.”

The Commission's rules

The current code of conduct for commissioners says that when they leave office they must abide by an 18 month notification period, during which time they must seek Commission authorisation for any new professional activities. The code further stipulates that the Commission shoud seek the view of its ad hoc ethical committee if the new professional activity is related to the commissioner's former portfolio. All commissioners are banned for 18 months from lobbying “members of the Commission and their staff for his/her business, client, or employer on matters for which they have been responsible”. The lobby ban is waived when former commissioners take up public office. In CEO's view, there are several loopholes and problems with these rules. The notification and lobby ban periods are far too short; lobbying is not defined; and the targets and content of proscribed lobbying are too narrowly-drawn.

As an ex-commissioner, Potočnik is entitled to a very generous transitional allowance after leaving the Commission of between 40 and 65 per cent of final basic salary for the three years after Potočnik has left office. In addition, the transitional allowance scheme provides for commissioners to earn up to a further €9000 (approximately) a month from other sources without their pay-out being affected. In CEO’s view, the transitional allowance, the purpose of which was to enable ex-commissioners to not have to seek out immediate new employment, and thus avoid the risk of possible conflicts of interests, clearly needs to be reformed.

Before publishing this statement, we contacted Potočnik for a response to our concerns; his full response can be read here.

Update 28 October 2015: You can read our new report The revolving doors spin again, Barroso II commissioners join the corporate sector on our website. The report includes this case and many others, analyses all the revolving door moves of the Barroso II Commission and includes a spreadsheet which collates all known information about the 100 plus new roles of the former commissioners.

Comment from CEO: 

“Former commissioners need to be especially careful if they take up new roles which are in the field of their Commission portfolio, and especially if they are remunerated. CEO has strong concerns about the Forum for the future of agriculture and we are disappointed that Potočnik has decided to act as chair for a lobby event promoting the interests of agribusiness corporations representing a highly destructive agricultural model. In our view, the Commission should lengthen the lobby ban, especially for roles where corporate interests could be in play.”

 

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