Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
Fifth evaluation round, GRECO, 20 March 2017, Strasbourg
Good morning everybody and thank you for the opportunity to address this gathering. I’d like to begin by apologising for not being able to be here in person but I’m afraid that that is due to matters outside of my control.
I am particularly sorry not to be here personally because the issues of revolving doors and their inherent conflicts of interest are ones that occupy a significant part of the workload of the office of the European Ombudsman.
As most citizens complaints concern their own domestic administrations, many of those that come to my office concern instead the governance of the EU institutions, typically issues around access to documents, the independence of those who advise the Commission in the development of new laws, the balance of interests represented in advisory expert groups, and the revolving door between the EU institutions and the private sector.
The latter issue is important precisely because of the global role that the EU plays in the regulation of key industry sectors including digital, chemical, pharmaceutical, energy, and financial services. When the EU regulates for Europe it essentially regulates for the world given the global reach of the markets of those particular industries. And that is why, for example, when an EU competition Commissioner decides to open an investigation into a company such as Apple or Google in relation to their competition practices, that news makes headlines right around the globe.
That is also why Brussels is packed with lobbyists and lobbying firms, all attempting to make sure that the final regulation passed by the co-legislators of the Parliament and the Council is aligned as much as possible with the private interests of the companies they work for. Every day of the week in Brussels, from street cafes to the biggest Commission offices you will find meetings going on between decision makers and lobbyists in a high stakes game of influence.
And all of that is perfectly legitimate. The Commission is not an expert in everything and nor can it always know the downstream effect of the laws they are putting together and proposing to the legislators. The industries have legitimate business needs and many of us of course profit from the products or services that they sell. Those interactions are part of the normal cut and thrust of a market economy in a democracy.
But what is not legitimate , and what should not be normal, is when that interaction takes place away from public gaze or when, either during the preparation of a regulation or at a later stage, information about the passage of that regulation is not made publicly available. That is why the EU has a transparency register which attempts to makes these interactions somewhat visible and that is why the commission has also made proposals to amend the register to make it easier to do so. I have also carried out several investigations into those matters recommending in particular greater openness in the decision making process. While I appreciate some space for sensitive negotiations, the public trust is diminished if laws that affect all of their lives are perceived as being made behind closed doors or are being influenced inappropriately.
But today’s topic concerns another part of the influencing package and that is ‘revolving doors’. Both I and my predecessors have worked on many cases concerning this matter, the most high profile of which is currently about the decision last year by the former EU Commission President Barroso, to become the non-executive Chairman of Goldman Sachs Bank.
Most of you will be familiar with that matter and I won’t go into too much detail about it here. It is enough to say that the move provoked an unprecedented level of both interest and concern with the staff of the EU institutions particularly worried about the damage they believed the move could do to the reputation of the EU at a point when populist politicians in particular attempt to portray the EU leadership as an out of touch elite who use their positions to profit themselves once they step down.
Following a series of complaints, I am carrying out further work on that matter, but I would like today to make a few more general points about revolving doors and why it is such an important matter.
Occasionally, when I discuss this with people who work in the institutions, I am told that people have a right to work, or that systems are in place to make sure conflicts don’t arise. Certainly systems are in place but whether they always work is another matter. Of course the right to work is both a private and a public interest but that private right does not trump the public interest in making sure that information or contacts gained by an individual through their work in an institution are not subsequently exploited or monetised to the benefit of a private interest and the detriment of the public interest.
I try to keep it simple. I ask what they would do if someone broke into the Commission or other computer system and hacked sensitive information or extracted confidential dossiers of great interest to a particular interest or business. The answer of course has to be that they would immediately launch an investigation or call the police. Yet that is precisely what can happen if someone with inside information from their work in the public service, moves to the private sector and reveals that information unless mechanisms or sanctions are in place to prevent that happening.
I would suggest however that the biggest challenge Greco will now face in this important piece of work is the fact that while much of this might seem obvious to the people in this room it is, in my experience, often far from obvious in many European states. The understanding of this issue, let alone the control of this issue, is very uneven. Some countries do acknowledge it as an importance governance issue which, if not dealt with, can lead to corruption while others have a much more laissez faire approach, allowing the seamless swapping of public and private roles by political and business interests.
I would suggest that the first place to start is not to find out about the controls and sanctions in place, but rather to see whether they actually consider it a problem or not. And if not, a rather big piece of work of work will have to be them to convince them that it is.
I wish you well in your work and I think you are fortunate that just last week you were presented with a model example of revolving doors that both graphically and entertainingly highlights the issues you will debating this morning. This is the case of Mr George Osborne, former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, now a Government party MP, also an adviser – we are told - to the Black Rock investment firm with an annual income of £650,000 from that work – and also, as of last week, the incoming editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper.
Needless to remark, the commentary over that range of interests has been intense. How it finally plays out should yield some interesting material as you go forward in this important work.