It often happens that EU politicians and officers pass from EU institutions to the private sector, and vice versa. In Brussels, the phenomenon is known as revolving doors, and it is one of the leading causes for concern for EU institutions. The best-known case is that of José Manuel Barroso, who was elected President of the European Commission twice, and after his last mandate became Non-Executive Chairman of Goldman Sachs. This phenomenon has been described as a great risk for the integrity and the democratic nature of the European legislative process.
In its 2017 resolution on transparency, accountability and integrity in the EU institutions, the European Parliament insisted that “EU institutions must strive for the highest possible standards of transparency, accountability and integrity”. This was also addressed by European Commission’s President von der Leyen in June 2019, during the Commission election process in the European Parliament.
European Commission vice-president Vera Jourová said she is committed to putting forward a proposal to create an independent, inter-institutional ethics body. "I am convinced that we will see the creation of an independent ethics body," she said. Jourová was mandated for the task and said work is needed in the coming months "to achieve concrete progress" before tabling a proposal to create the independent ethics body. Vice-president Jourová has been collaborating with AFCO (Constitutional Affairs), CONT (Budgetary Control), ECON (Economic and Monetary Affairs), JURI (Legal Affairs) and PETI (Petitions), Committees of the European Parliament.
On Thursday, 28th of January, during an AFCO meeting, Mr Freund (Green/ALE) presented the resolutions: Strengthening transparency and integrity in the EU institutions by setting up an independent EU ethics body. The creation of the EU ethics body would strengthen EU institutions’ transparency and accountability, and consequently, foster EU citizens’ trust and reliance. The resolution does not foresee the creation of a new EU body, but the merging of preexisting ones. The creation of the EU ethics body would enhance the simplification and harmonization of norms and rules concerning transparency that already exist in EU member States; thus, the ethics body would not create new rules, but monitor the application of preexisting ones.
As far as its composition is concerned, the resolution presented proposes an ethics body composed of 9 completely independent members: three former members of the Commission, 3 former members of the Parliament, one former member of the Court of Justice, one former member of the Court of Auditors, and one former Ombudsman.
The necessity of creating an EU ethics body stems from the presence of some flaws that emerged in the existing ethics system. In fact, during the debate MEPs recalled the Cash for Amendments scandal: in 2011 some MEPs agreed to propose amendments in exchange for money. The scandal was discovered by some journalists working for the British newspaper Sunday Times: in a sting operation, undercover journalists posing as lobbyists for industry clients approached 60 MEPs inviting them to join the advisory board of a fake lobby consultancy firm and assist with influencing decision-making in the Parliament on behalf of the lobby firm’s clients. No less than 14 MEPs agreed to meet with the fake lobbyists to discuss the 100,000 euro per year offer.
The general result of the discussion that took place on Thursday, 28th of January, was positive: the great majority of AFCO members agreed to the necessity of creating an EU independent ethics body. Some suggestions to the resolution were proposed, among which: adding a review clause, maintaining the division of powers among EU institutions, and finding a common definition of “conflict of interests”. Some MEPs appeared more reluctant than others: Mr Wieland (EPP) suggested that it would be more appropriate to handle ethics matters following considerations concerning the rule of law, instead of dealing with such matters democratically. Whereas, Mrs Chiaibi (GUE/NLG) expressed her doubts concerning the composition of the ethics body: in her opinion it is implausible that ethics body’s members inquire about their former colleagues.
EU integration has developed from a community of economic integration to a “Community of values”, thus creating strong links between EU law and ethics. Turning the EU in an “Ethical Union” by strengthening the ethical spirit of the EU is key for both building up, as well as maintaining trust. At the moment, various EU institutions have fragmented approaches of dealing with ethics. Since it is evident that integrity cannot be guaranteed through a self-regulatory approach, the creation of an EU ethics body is essential in order to regain and maintain public trust. The scope of the ethics body should cover all branches of power: Commission, Parliament and Council, but also EU agencies.
The discussion about EU instutition’s transparency and accountability continued during a meeting at the Working Party on General Affairs (Council). Given the strong consensus achieved inside the AFCO Committee e the importance given to the topic by the Commission and the Parliament, the discussion will for sure continue and hopefully lead to the creation of the EU independent ethics body.
Author: Giulia Grandin
The original Strengthening transparency and integrity in the EU institutions by setting up an independent EU ethics body draft report: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/AFCO-PR-663273_EN.pdf