by Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman (in the picture @European Communities)
The European Union must do more to create and enhance a relationship of trust between the citizens and their Institutions.
This relationship forms the basis for a contract between these same individuals and a supra-national government which can at times seem remote and abstracted from day to day life across the 28 Member States.
The physical distance and political remoteness means that for many people the EU does not enjoy the same levels of legitimacy as most embedded local, regional and national administrative structures.
To bridge this gap, the Union must operate to a “gold standard” of ethics, transparency and accountability so that, over time, it may begin to endear itself to the hearts and minds of ordinary Europeans.
It must, in short, mount the proverbial high horse.
One area which continues to fritter trust in the Institutions is the so-called “revolving door”- the phenomenon of staff leaving the EU institutions to take up positions in the private sector, or when it’s swinging the other way, staff joining the Institutions directly from the private sector.
This is an area which, I admit, is difficult to manage. People have a right to work, and to leave the institutions in search of new opportunities. The Institutions also have a responsibility that the conduct of a few individuals does not undermine trust in the Union’s administration as a whole.
Therefore, a transparent system is needed to ensure that when someone moves from one position to another actual or perceived conflicts of interest are prevented from developing.
We must also bear-in-mind that conflicts of interest damage the reputations of other hard-working European civil servants and damages staff morale.
In September of last year I made a number of practical recommendations to the European Commission on ways it could more effectively restore people’s trust in this area of the Union’s activity. These included:
- Analyse fully each individual application to work outside the Commission and set out that analysis in well-reasoned and well-documented decisions;
- Properly record and analyse comments made by other Commission services, particularly when the eventual position of the Commission deviates from those comments;
- Inform staff that they remain bound always to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance of certain appointments or benefits, remind them that this obligation is not limited in time, and take all possible measures vis-à-vis any former staff who ignore this obligation by accepting any problematic employment offer; and,
- Ensure that the assessment of applications is carried out by staff who have not had any direct professional connections with the official concerned. It is particularly important to pay close attention to this requirement as regards senior officials;
- Publish online regularly, in respect of decisions to approve requests to work outside the Commission from senior officials, (i) the name of the senior official concerned, (ii) details of the duties carried out in the Commission by that senior official, (iii) details of the duties to be carried out in the new activities, and (iv) the Commission’s detailed assessment and conclusions (including any conditions) in respect of any potential conflict of interest;”
One of the most important recommendations I made was for the creation of a central register. This is critical because not only does it give the Commission a more detailed overview of the potential risks in the various DGs, but it also gives citizens access to information and statistics on the “revolving door” thus promoting transparency and trust.
Such systems are already in place in other jurisdictions and have worked, not only to give the public more information but to promote a more virtuous cycle of public administration, to improve behaviour.
I welcome the many steps the Commission has taken in this area and hope that in the coming months it will take the necessary measures to finally shut the door on this issue.