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Decision in case 1686/2016/EA on the European Commission’s failure to answer correspondence about its handling of conflict of interest situations involving Commissioners

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  • Case: 1686/2016/EA
    Opened on 06 Dec 2016 - Decision on 22 May 2017
  • Institution(s) concerned: European Commission

1. The complainant is Head of the Dutch Delegation of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. On 3 October 2016, the complainant sent a letter to the European Commission, signed by 46 MEPs in his Group, to express concerns about the Commission’s handling of conflict of interest situations of current and former Commissioners.

2. In his cover email to the President of the Commission, the complainant referred specifically to the handling of the case of the former Commissioner for Competition, 2004-2010, and for Digital Agenda, 2010-2014, as the reason for his complaint.[1] In his letter, the complainant also called on the Commission to take a number of steps to minimise the risk of conflict of interest situations among current and former Commissioners.

3. As the complainant had not received a reply to his letter by 14 November 2016, he turned to the Ombudsman. He said again that the reason for his complaint was the specific case of the former Commissioner. He argued that the Commission had refused to be proactive in investigating matters of ethics and integrity and had, in spite of repeated cases, not taken credible steps to minimise conflict of interest situations.

4. The Ombudsman wrote to the Commission on 6 December 2016. In that letter, the Ombudsman referred to a statement by the Commission that its Ad Hoc Ethical Committee was looking into the case of the former Commissioner. The Ombudsman conveyed her understanding that the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee had not yet finalised its opinion. The Ombudsman therefore asked the Commission to inform the complainant about the state of play and reply to the complainant as soon as possible after the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee had adopted its opinion in the case of the former Commissioner.

5. On 16 November 2016, the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee delivered its opinion.

6. The Commission adopted a decision on the basis of this opinion on 21 December 2016. According to the Commission’s decision, the former Commissioner breached the Code of Conduct for Commissioners when she failed to include in her 2004 declaration of interests the fact that she had held a post as Director of a company. The decision also stated that the former Commissioner had breached applicable rules when, despite accepting the “transitional allowance” she did not declare her 2015 income[2]. The Commission concluded, however, that because she had repaid the money in question, it did not have sufficient factual or legal grounds to apply to the Court with a request that it impose a financial sanction on the former Commissioner. Nevertheless, it concluded that the “lack of diligence” shown by the former Commissioner, in omitting to declare her 2015 income, justified issuing a “reprimand” to her. It issued that “reprimand” by means of its decision of 21 December 2016.

7. On 2 February 2017, the Commission replied to the complainant. The Commission forwarded that reply to the Ombudsman the following day. In its reply, the Commission informed the complainant about its decision of 21 December 2016 concerning the former Commissioner. It also responded to suggestions of the complainant which were aimed at minimising the risk of conflict of interest situations among current and former Commissioners.

8. The Ombudsman stresses that the present inquiry is concerned only with the administrative issue of the Commission’s failure to respond to the complainant[3]. The inquiry does not concern the merits of the position taken by the Commission. As the matter of the failure to respond to the complainant has now been settled, the Ombudsman closes this inquiry[4].

Emily O'Reilly

Strasbourg, 22/05/2017

 

 

[1] The case concerned the declaration of interests made by the former Commissioner in 2004 and an omission in relation to her transitional allowance.

[2] The transitional allowance, which is granted to former Commissioners when they leave office, must be reduced if a former Commissioner takes up gainful employment during the period when he/she enjoys the right to the transitional allowance.

[3] The Ombudsman is currently inquiring into two complaints (194/2017/EA and 334/2017/EA) in which it is alleged that the European Commission has not reacted adequately to the decision of the former Commission President to take up employment with a major international bank.

[4] Information on the review procedure can be found on the Ombudsman’s website: http://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/resources/otherdocument.faces/en/70669/html.bookmark / in the attachment.