EU Ombudsman urges for robust management of ‘revolving doors’ issue

One fourth of the last year’s complaints related to transparency and accountability

Photo: EP Emily O'Reilly.

How the Commission handles so-called ‘revolving doors’ cases among its staff is the topic of a wide-ranging inquiry, launched by European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly. At a news conference on Tuesday, she announced that the inquiry is part of a reinforced monitoring of how the EU administration implements the ethics obligations on EU staff who move to the private sector.

The Ombudsman will inspect 100 personnel files related to decisions by the Commission on requests by senior and mid-level managers for approval of either new employment or of unpaid leave in order to undertake another activity.

The files cover a total of 14 Directorate-Generals in addition to all commissioner cabinets, the Commission’s Legal Service, Secretariat-General, internal think tank and the Regulatory Scrutiny Board.

The wide scope aims to ensure a broad understanding of how such decisions are taken across a range of Commission departments.

According to EU Ombudsman O’Reilly robust management of the ‘revolving doors’ issue is important for maintaining trust in the EU institutions. Any perception that the rules are not being properly enforced risks questions being raised about whether the EU administration is acting fully in the public interest, she explained.

"The potential corrosive effect of unchecked ‘revolving doors’ is, in my view, underestimated - this is why my Office has focused on it for several years." As the Ombudsman underscored, there should be more awareness in the EU administration of the impression it makes on the public when people with regulatory expertise move to the private sector where their knowledge and networks can have significant commercial and other value. “That understanding is not yet there,” Emily O’Reilly stressed.

The Ombudsman has carried out several inquiries related to revolving doors, including one now closed concerning the European Banking Authority and one ongoing, concerning the European Defence Agency. The Ombudsman has also written to the Commission to ask it to ensure compliance with the conditions it drew up when it approved former Commissioner Oettinger’s new role at a communications consultancy, which has a tobacco company as one of its largest EU clients.

At the Ombudsman’s Annual Report for 2020, launched on Tuesday, complaints related to transparency and accountability accounted for the biggest proportion of inquiries - 25%.

The report documents the Ombudsman’s proactive monitoring of how key EU institutions responded in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Among the findings is that the European Centre for Disease Control has insufficient powers to properly carry out its mandate. She also asked the Council to improve the transparency of its procedures for decision making during the COVID-19 crisis.

In 2021, the Ombudsman opened complaint-based COVID-19 inquiries concerning public access to the vaccine contracts signed by the Commission and details about the Member States taking part in negotiating the vaccine contracts.

When crisis hits, transparency and accountability are often sacrificed in favour of expediency, Emily O’Reilly pointed out noting that “it is therefore all the more important to remind public administrations to continue to act in a manner that ensures the greatest public trust”.

Last year also saw several important inquiries related to environmental decision making, as well inquiries concerning ethics and concerning fundamental rights, such as an inquiry into the effectiveness of Frontex’s complaints mechanism.

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