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Decision on how the European Commission manages ‘revolving door’ moves of its staff members (OI/1/2021/KR)

Tuesday | 06 December 2022

As the EU is increasingly entrusted with greater powers in areas from defence to healthcare, public trust in the administration is essential. Any perception that public servants pursue private interests that conflict with their public work is therefore highly damaging. The European Ombudsman has long identified the ‘revolving doors’ phenomenon as one that can damage public trust if not adequately managed. Even a small number of high profile moves can generate significant public disquiet and cause reputational damage. This strategic inquiry looked at 100 European Commission ‘revolving door’ files to identify areas for improvement and to guide the rest of the EU administration for the future.

The Ombudsman’s inquiry found genuine improvements since she had last examined the issue, including guidance on how to conduct more rigorous examinations of each move.

That said, in some instances, the Commission approved requests from former senior staff members to take up activities, despite reservations as to whether the conditions imposed on the moves would mitigate the potential risks (such as conflicts of interest and access to knowledge or contacts within the administration). The Ombudsman believes that such moves should be authorised only where the activity can be made subject to restrictions that adequately mitigate the risks and which can credibly be monitored and enforced.

Where such restrictions and enforcement are not possible, the Commission should temporarily forbid former staff members from taking up the intended jobs. Not doing so risks underestimating the corrosive effects over time of having such officials bring their knowledge and networks to related areas in the private sector, and the related reputational damage to the EU.

When approving an activity with mitigating measures, the Commission should explore the full range of measures available. For instance, the Commission could make its approval of a new job conditional upon the staff member obtaining a commitment from the new employer that the restrictions imposed by the Commission are made public on the new employer’s website. As a minimum, the Commission should require the (former) staff member to submit evidence that the restrictions imposed were shared with the new employer.

The difficulties encountered by the Commission in monitoring compliance led the Ombudsman to reiterate her suggestion that the Commission makes public in a more timely way information on all post-service activities of senior former staff members that it assesses. This would improve public scrutiny of these decisions, which is essential for monitoring purposes.

Decision on how the European Central Bank (ECB) deals with ‘revolving door’ cases (OI/1/2022/KR)

Friday | 28 October 2022

The European Ombudsman has long identified ‘revolving doors’, whereby public officials move to the private sector, as a phenomenon that can potentially damage public trust if not managed properly.

This own-initiative inquiry sought to look at how the European Central Bank (ECB) deals with revolving door moves of its staff members.

Given the ECB's role in ensuring price stability and supervising financial and credit institutions, any moves by (former) ECB staff members to private financial or credit institutions, in particular those that fall under the ECB’s supervision, can pose conflict of interest and reputational risks, and cause public disquiet.

The Ombudsman’s inquiry assessed one specific case, which had raised public concerns, and also reviewed 26 cases of requests by staff members to take up occupational activities, either while on unpaid leave or after finishing work with the ECB. In all but one of the files reviewed ECB staff members moved to the private sector, including entities and banks that are under ECB supervision.

The Ombudsman concluded that the ECB should apply a more robust approach in relation to revolving door moves of its (former) middle ranking and senior staff to private sector jobs, in particular in the financial industry.

To address shortcomings that arose in the individual case and more generally in how the ECB tackles this challenge, the Ombudsman set out a series of suggestions on how the ECB can strengthen its rules, including in the context of the ongoing revision of the ECB’s Ethics Framework.

Specifically, the ECB should widen the scope of those staff who are subject to stricter notification and/or cooling-off requirements or opt for a general minimum requirement for all staff akin to the provisions of the EU Staff Regulations related to post-service occupational activities.

The ECB should also lengthen, from six months to one year, the prohibition on former senior ECB staff members lobbying their former colleagues.

The ECB should further improve its monitoring of the compliance of (former) staff members with their ethics obligations and conditions imposed by the ECB, for example by making public the conditions for authorising the post-employment activities of former senior staff members so that alleged breaches can be flagged.

The Ombudsman furthermore suggested that, where the ECB considers that a request from a staff member to take up an occupational activity while on unpaid leave poses risks that cannot be adequately mitigated by restrictions or when restrictions cannot be effectively monitored or enforced, it should not authorise such a request.

 

Decision on how the European Investment Bank (EIB) handled the move of a former Vice-President to an energy utility company that had received EIB loans (1016/2021/KR)

Wednesday | 27 July 2022

The case concerned the decision of the European Investment Bank to approve a request made by a former vice-president and member of its Management Committee (MC) (the ‘former VP’) to become a non-executive board member of a Spanish energy utility company, which received loans from the EIB.

The complainants, two Members of the European Parliament, raised concerns that the move gave rise to the risk of conflicts of interest. The EIB argued that the former VP had not been involved in the negotiation and implementation of the financing agreements between the EIB and the company.

The Ombudsman found that, in approving the move, the EIB did not properly manage the risk of conflicts of interest to which the former VP’s request arguably gave rise. However, given the EIB has, in the meantime, made improvements to the relevant ethics rules to address these matters, the Ombudsman determined that no further inquiries were justified.

Nonetheless, the Ombudsman made suggestions for improvement with a view to strengthening how the EIB assesses ‘revolving door’ moves by members of its MC to the private sector, and how it ensures compliance where its Ethics and Compliance Committee authorises a move but applies conditions on the individual and their activities.