The revolving door is at the heart of the close relationship between the EU institutions and Brussels' lobby industry, with as many as 50 per cent of staff who work at Brussels' biggest lobby firms having a background in one of the EU institutions.
As ALTER-EU demonstrated in its 2011 report, a number of former European Commissioners moved straight from public office into lobbying jobs, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.
But less well-known is the phenomenon of officials working in the EU institutions, especially in very senior policy-making or decision-making roles, who also go straight into an industry or corporate lobby job, often to work on issues closely related to their former department. Such job moves, known as going through the revolving door, create conflicts of interest and allow the official to potentially abuse their inside knowledge of European decision-making and their access to former colleagues, for the benefit of their new corporate paymasters.
ALTER-EU has documented more than 15 cases of senior EU officials moving through the revolving door. The EU institutions have rules to govern the revolving door, but the rules are weak and are not effectively implemented: between January 2008 and July 2010, only one official was prevented from taking up a new position, out of 201 applications. In the cases documented by ALTER-EU, many officials were allowed to move into lobbying jobs without restriction. In other cases, it was only following questions from civil society groups and the media that some restrictions were put in place.
A number of Brussels-based lobby firms actively recruit from among the ranks of EU officials to bolster their firm’s prestige and claims of insider know-how, which can help their corporate clients achieve their EU policy objectives. More than half of the lobbyists at four well-known Brussels public affairs agencies have previous experience in the EU institutions.
The Commission is also far too secretive about the revolving door, refusing repeated requests, including from MEPs and from ALTER-EU members to pro-actively publish information about who has gone through the revolving door.
The revolving door in Brussels spins far too frequently and the authorities have failed to recognise that their failure to block it risks further undermining the independence, and democratic legitimacy, of the European institutions across member states. A review of the rules governing EU staff - the Staff Regulations - which include some rules on conflicts of interest and the revolving door has been underway since 2011. In June 2013, following much delayed negotations, the European Parliament adopted the new rules.
The new EU Staff Regulations make some improvements to the revolving door rules, including a new 12 month cooling-off period for senior officials on some lobby jobs, and a clearer procedure for screening new staff for conflicts of interest. Read more about the new rules here.
Progress towards several of ALTER-EU's campaign demands have been made, as highlighted below:
A mandatory cooling-off period (or ban) of at least two years for all EU institution staff members entering new posts which involve lobbying or advising on lobbying, or any other role which provoke a conflict of interest with their work as an EU official
<< the new 12 month cooling-off period for senior officials (which corresponds to a very narrow and high-level band of officials, and only on lobby jobs relating to their former portfolio) is a definitely a step in the right direction, but its only the first step;
Tackling the loopholes in the current rules, including the exclusion of staff on (temporary) contracts
<< whilst temporary staff may not, in many circumstances, require the same stringent revolving door rules as permanent staff, appropriate and proportional rules are still needed, especially with contract staff able to work for up to 6 years in an EU institution;
Proper scrutiny of all staff joining EU institutions for potential conflicts of interest. Where there is a potential conflict of interest between their old job and their new EU role, those persons must recuse themselves from such matters
<< the new provisions in Article 11 (which include a specific form about any potential conflict of interest a candidate may have, and the obligation for the institution to issue a 'reasoned opinion' - both things that watchdog groups like ALTER-EU can track under access to documents law) , if stringently implemented, could achieve this;
Ensure sufficient resourcing to be able to investigate and monitor revolving door cases
<< this remains an ongoing challenge;
Publish a full and updated list of all revolving door cases on EU institutions’ websites
<< the new staff regulations offer significant progress around the transparency of senior staff going through the revolving door (details of cases under the new 12 month cooling off period for senior officials must be published on the EU institutions' websites), but until all cases are covered by similar rules, true transparency about the scale and management of the revolving door will remain elusive.
Whilst ALTER-EU welcomes the progress made in the new rules, much more still needs to be done - not least in the implementation of the rules - to stop the privileged access and undue influence that the revolving door gives to big business and corporate lobby groups.
Following a complaint by several ALTER-EU groups in autum 2012, the European Ombudsman is now investigating the European Commission over its systemic failure to properly implement its own revolving door rules. This will investigation will include an examination of all revolving door cases in the last three years.