The European Commission should take a tougher approach to former staffers’ moves to the private sector, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said following a wide-ranging inquiry.
Watchdogs and civil society groups have raised concerns in recent years that some Commission officials — including commissioners and high-profile civil servants — are leaving public service for lobbying and consultancy roles which may constitute a conflict of interest.
Recent controversial moves have included the hiring of Carles Esteva Mosso, a former deputy director general for state aid at DG Competition, as a partner in Law firm Latham & Watkins’ antitrust and competition practice, as well as former long-time European Commissioner Günther Oettinger taking on numerous private sector roles.
At the same time, there have been growing questions about the Commission’s ability and willingness to enforce restrictions imposed on ex-staffers now working in the private sector.
“The Commission should apply a more robust approach in relation to revolving door moves of its most senior staff to private sector jobs, shortly after departure or retirement, related to matters on which they worked while in the Commission,” O’Reilly wrote in a report after examining 100 Commission decisions taken between 2019 and 2021.
The ombudsman found that out of the 100 decisions examined — which included moves to consultancies, law firms, academia and NGOs — the Commission rejected only two requests.
Under the Commission’s rules, staff members need to seek permission from the institution for their new activities for a two-year period after leaving. The Commission examines each request to see if there is a risk of a conflict of interest, and may prohibit the intended job or place restrictions on what the former staff may do in their new role. Senior Commission officials, meanwhile, are banned from lobbying their former institution for one year on issues they were responsible for during their last three years at the Commission.
Speaking to POLITICO this week, O’Reilly said that while there have been some improvements “the Commission is too lenient and very reluctant to veto jobs, even for a period.” And while the inquiry did not find “maladministration,” the ombudsman did point to a range of problems with the current system.
“Sometimes the evaluations they do can be quite sketchy,” she said.
In one case, the ombudsman wrote in her report, “a senior manager was authorised to engage in a post-service activity despite a direct link existing with the work carried out in the final three years of service and despite it being difficult to verify that the imposed restrictions would be complied with.”
In an interview, she said there is a “disparity” between “what the Commission thinks the person is not going to do and what the companies expect — or at least to their potential clients, advertise the new individual as.”
When lobbies and consultancies hire former senior EU officials, they often issue statements highlighting how their new employee’s EU policy experience will contribute to their firm — even in cases where under the Commission’s rules the officials are not allowed to use their insider knowledge or network to help private clients.
Responding to the ombudsman’s inquiry, a Commission spokesperson said that the institution is following the rules.
“The Commission takes note that the Ombudsman has not identified any instances of maladministration,” the spokesperson said in an email.
“The Ombudsman has closed this inquiry without recommendations,” the spokesperson added. “This means that the Commission approach is sound and in line with the rules.”
But while the inquiry did not result in formal recommendations, the ombudsman did make several suggestions, advising that the Commission temporarily forbid jobs if they pose a risk that cannot be mitigated through properly monitored and enforced restrictions.
These include a set of “hypothetical” examples of scenarios where the Commission should consider a temporary prohibition, including cases where a “senior official” from the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition would request to “move to a private firm that is specialised in challenging the Commission in competition matters” and cases where a senior official working anti-dumping issues would want to “move to a private firm whose core business is antidumping matters.”
Ahead of a meeting with the European Commission as part of her inquiry, the ombudsman in November singled out the Commission’s competition directorate, saying “the strategically important DG … continues to shed top lawyers to private sector entities with major commercial interests in competition regulation.” The announcement came shortly after a third high-profile competition official in less than a year left the Commission to a law firm that acted for Big Tech firms.
Another scenario where the ombudsman said a temporary prohibition should be considered is if a senior official in the Commission’s secretariat-general with a wide network within the institution would want to join a Brussels-based law firm that works on EU matters.
O’Reilly also floated the idea that the Commission could make new jobs contingent upon a former staffer getting a commitment from their new employer to post a description of the Commission’s restrictions on the employer’s website.
“Nobody is in the business of damaging people’s life chances,” she said. “I think the Commission has to be a little bit more imaginative.”
The Commission spokesperson said the Berlaymont will respond to the ombudsman by mid-November.
“We will analyse each suggestion scrupulously and assess what can be implemented in a legally sound and effective way,” the spokesperson noted.
“The Commission,” the spokesperson added, “is implementing the existing rules in an effective, robust, and proportionate manner for all categories of staff, including senior managers.”
Simon Van Dorpe and Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting.
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