Uber Files highlights weak enforcement of EU ethics rules – POLITICO


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No one stands guard at the revolving door of the EU.

Neelie Kroes, a former EU digital chief known for her pro-Uber stance while in office, first faced an unprecedented rebuke for failing to disclose her earnings in 2016.

Now, new allegations targeting Kroes and revealed as part of the ‘Uber Files’ leaks suggest she may have breached the Commission’s ethics rules in a separate incident – by starting to lobby for Uber before the directives allowed it.

The claims, outlined in a mass of documents on Uber’s lobbying activities in several countries, bolster scrutiny of EU ethics rules which activists say are barely enforced despite repeated scandals involving ‘former Commission officials taking on lucrative corporate lobbying jobs after leaving office.

According to information in the leaked documents, Dutch politician Kroes went from being an internal champion of the carpooling app as Commission vice-president in charge of the digital agenda to an external champion, as a lobbyist for Uber.

Documents leaked to the Guardian by former Uber lobbyist Mark MacGann say Kroes personally approached Dutch authorities and offered to set up meetings with EU commissioners well before a ‘cooling off’ period ended. of 18 months. Whether his alleged interventions breached the letter of EU safeguards against policymakers profiting from the public service – or simply the spirit – is up for debate among watchdogs.

What is not: that the Commission would not notice it anyway.

“There is little scrutiny,” said Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, of whether former EU commissioners have followed the rules. In a statement, she noted the “propaganda value for Eurosceptics and others of the resulting scandals”.

For now, the Commission is waiting for Kroes to give “clarifications” on his activities. Still, if there was one ex-commissioner to watch, it was Kroes, who covered the competition from 2004 to 2010 and then the digital agenda until November 2014.

In 2016, she became the first ex-commissioner to receive a “reprimand”, after another leak revealed she had failed to disclose her position on the board of a shell company in the Bahamas.

The Commission threw its hands on enforcement issues, arguing that they had no “secret police” to find information that had not been shared.

Eventually, the Commission’s ad hoc ethics committee chose to “reprimand” Kroes. Sloppy steering turned out not to be the only problem. She also failed to disclose her earnings in 2015, even though she received a so-called transitional allowance, a sum intended to tide over former civil servants during the cooling-off period.

Former commissioner Neelie Kroes was known for her pro-Uber stance during her tenure | Julien Warnand/EPA

While the committee slammed her for not acting with ‘due diligence’, the board opted not to pursue legal consequences – especially as she promptly reimbursed the parties for transition compensation . (Kroes did not receive a pension, eliminating a leverage tool.) The Commission declined to share monetary amounts at the time.

As the documents are not public, it is not immediately clear whether Kroes included Uber’s revenue in its updated financial statements in 2015. Reports based on Uber’s internal documents note that the Commission explicitly denied Kroes permission to work for the company before the end of the waiting period.

Itchy lobby

According to Uber, Kroes only joined the company’s advisory board in May 2016. Yet even then, his onboarding shortly after the 18-month hiatus raised eyebrows, given his advocacy for the American company during his time at the Commission. .

This week’s revelations suggest that behind the scenes, she hadn’t waited that long.

The Guardian reports that she called several Dutch officials in response to raids on Uber’s offices in Amsterdam in 2015 and helped arrange meetings with Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Records also suggest she offered to set up meetings with EU commissioners Violeta Bulc in 2015 and – just days before the end of the 18-month wait – Frans Timmermans.

In comments to the Guardian, Kroes points to an unpaid, Commission-approved role as the Dutch government’s special envoy for tech companies during this time. However, his work had to be limited to broad themes. (Kroes did not respond to POLITICO’s email requesting comment.)

Nor do EU rules explicitly prohibit lobbying of public officials at national level.

Nonetheless, said Vitor Teixeira, senior policy officer at Transparency International EU, the offers to contact the commissioners were a “clear breach” of the cooling-off period. Additionally, Teixeira and other watchdogs say his efforts on behalf of Uber breach an EU treaty provision that requires former commissioners to “behave with integrity and discretion” when it comes to the work they accept after they leave.

Since Kroes’ rebuke — and an even more publicized outcry following former Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s move to Goldman Sachs — the Commission has launched ethical reforms, including extending the cooling-off period to two years.

Still, the system remains “purely reactive”, Teixeira said. It does not have the ability to monitor or investigate compliance with conflict of interest safeguards until there is a scandal. “The system,” Teixeira added, “is not up to par.”

The European Ombudsman has been widely critical of the Commission’s handling of staff transfers to the private sector.

In a report released in May, O’Reilly urged the Commission to be tougher on temporarily banning jobs if they pose conflict of interest risks that cannot be adequately compensated or monitored.

In the statement, O’Reilly flagged the loophole to lobby national officials – who have considerable leverage over EU law through the Council – as one of many needed improvements to the EU laws. ethics of the EU. Declining to comment specifically on the Commission’s handling of the case, O’Reilly claimed that the use of lobbying strategies at national and EU level, as documented in the Uber filings, “raises the question of whether it there should be a European directive on lobbying”. transparency and ethics.

In Brussels, the team of current Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has drawn up plans for an EU ethics body, but there is no timetable for a concrete proposal.

Peppered with questions during Monday’s daily press briefing, Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said the Commission needed to iron out the details of the ethics body with the other EU institutions, but that would propose a plan “as soon as possible in this context”.

“As you can imagine,” Wigand said, “it’s rather complicated.”

Pieter Haeck contributed reporting.

Uber Files highlights weak enforcement of EU ethics rules – POLITICO

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