MEPs have rightly been under intense scrutiny in recent years, be it their generous wages and allowances, exotic junkets or second pension schemes. But what about EU Commissioners?
The Sunday Times yesterday reported that MEPs have demanded that the Commission's 'ethics committee' investigate whether former Commissioner Günter Verheugen is in breach of rules on lobbying. Verheugen, who retired in February, received the Commission’s approval to take up posts with Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm, the Royal Bank of Scotland and associations representing German banks and Turkish commodity exchanges.
But apparently he did not seek permission for the European Experience company, of which he is a co-founder, co-owner and unpaid managing director. The company’s website promises clients “expertise and vast experience in the area of EU policy” as well as “the best strategy” to deal with European institutions.
If the claims are true, it would appear that Verheugen is indeed in breach of the Commission's code of conduct, which states:
Whenever Commissioners intend to engage in an occupation during the year after they have ceased to hold office, whether this be at the end of their term or upon resignation, they shall inform the Commission in good time. The Commission shall examine the nature of the planned occupation. If it is related to the content of the portfolio of the Commissioner during his/her full term of office, the Commission shall seek the opinion of an ad hoc ethical committee. (p3)But the problem is these rules leave far too much room for ambiguity and it is no wonder that cases such as this occur. After all, Verheugen is not the only ex-Commissioner to take up a job which would potentially involve lobbying his former employer. Charlie McCreevy also took up a job, this time at Ryanair, which is clearly open to a conflict of interest given the airline's run-ins with the Commission in competition cases in the past and perhaps the future.
So, let's see the Commission tighten up the rules, perhaps taking inspiration from the UK's ministerial code of conduct, and bar ex-Commissioners for two years from working for any firm that would seek to influence the Commission. It's not like these ex-officials are going to starve to death. Verheugen is in receipt of a pension worth around €115,000 a year.