With trust in democracy and elected representatives declining around the world, it’s more important than ever that the EU acts to preserve and promote citizens’ faith in EU democracy, institutions, and politicians. That is why an EU Ethics Body, as proposed on the 16th September by the EU Parliament, is urgently required to ensure that MEPS, Commissioners, and other high powered persons follow the ethics rules that prevent corruption and improper influence in EU policy making. Citizens must have trust that their leaders are working for them, and not themselves.
On 16th September, the European Parliament the European Parliament adopted the report on “Improving transparency and integrity in the EU institutions through the establishment of an independent EU ethics body”.
The report calls on the EU Commission to draw up an inter-institutional agreement to create a new ethics body to enforce EU ethics rules on issues such as conflicts of interest, lobbying, outside activities, and “cooling off periods” after working in the institutions. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged her support for the creation of a new ethics body, and has delegated the task to Vice-President Vera Jourova.
The report marks a new break from the old complex system of institutional self-monitoring, which led to lacklustre investigations and rarely to sanctions. The new independent, unitary body as proposed in the report will help preserve and promote confidence in EU democracy and politics through thorough investigations and enforcement of the ethics rules.
The EU’s ethics standards are already robust, more robust than many national and regional rules in the EU, however the problem often is that these rules are not so robustly enforced. For example, despite twenty four alleged breaches of the code of conduct in the last Parliamentary term, there was never an actual sanction.
This lack of enforcement is largely due to the fact that the EU institutions, such as the European Parliament (EP), operated under a fractured self-monitoring system. Different institutions had their own ethics bodies. In the EP five MEPS were selected by the President of the Parliament to recommend how to deal with ethics infringements. For the European Commission, this job was done by a former MEP, former judge, and a former senior Commission official.
The new ethics body will be an independent oversight body that covers all EU institutions, rather than the previous system of complex institutional self-monitoring. With the proposed changes, there will be nine independent members, for example former judges and current ethics issue experts. The EP will select three members, the Commission another three, with the last three coming from courts and other judicial bodies. This ensures no one institution can select a majority of the members.
This new ethics body will have the power to initiate investigations, and not have to wait for approval of the President of one of the EU institutions, as was previously the case. It will also have the power to access Parliament documents and perform spot checks.
The recommendations of the ethics body will be made public, but they will remain only recommendations. The body cannot end in deadlock either, as was the case in the old Parliament ethics proceedings.
What do we mean when we speak of unethical behaviour? Here are a few examples. Günther Oettinger was the former Commissioner for Energy (2010-2014), and for Digital Economy and Society/Budget and Personnel (2014-2019). He now has seventeen different jobs, including for Deloitte. This is in spite of the fact that in 2018, his last full year working in the Commission, the Commission’s debt to Deloitte member firms amounted to €27m. Of these about €4 million were Oettinger’s responsibility.
Reinald Krüger worked for the European Commissions’ Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as Head of the Regulatory Coordination and Markets Unit. He is now Group Public Policy Director at Vodafone. A condition of him being permitted to work for Vodafone is that he does not engage with European Commission staff for a period of one year, does not deal with matters directly related to his work at the Commission, and does not hold meetings of a professional nature with his former DF or service – a “cooling-off period”. However, despite this, he was seen at a debate organised by Vodafone in Brussels on the “Internet of Things” then at a conference in Lisbon on “The Future of Digital Policy from a Consumer Perspective’ and finally at a conference for European regulators in Riga. The Commission argues that there would only have been a conflict of interest if Krüger had organised the events himself. But maybe an independent ethics body would have seen things differently.
In the past, investigations too often failed to sanction unethical behaviour by the most powerful people in the Union. When stories such as those highlighted above go without a thorough and independent investigation, and punishment where need be, citizens lose faith in the European project and EU democracy. An independent ethics body will help preserve and promote democracy in the EU, and reassure citizens the EU and it’s high powered persons work for them, not themselves or vested interests. While the body may have some shortcomings, such as the non-legally binding rulings, it cannot come at a better time.
Now we must wait and see how Vice-President Vera Jourova draws up the inter-institutional agreement, and how the new ethics body works in practise; if it follows the same timid investigations and sanctions of the old, or to a new era of more stringent and rigorous application of the EU ethics rules.
If you want to discover more on the new EU ethics body, you can read HEC Law Professor Alberto Alemanno’s study that has been taken as a basis by the EU Parliament to design such an EU ethics body here.