The last few months have been marked by significant European news on public integrity issues. Indeed, the European Court of Auditors amended its code of conduct to strengthen the ethical rules applicable to its members; the European Parliament adopted a resolution on foreign interference in all EU democratic processes; and the European Ombudsman issued the conclusions of her enquiry into the “revolving door” of European Commission members.
The European Court of Auditors has amended its code of conduct, which applies to all members and in some cases to former members. The updated Code of Conduct follows revelations in the press of situations of alleged conflicts of interest and unethical practices within the Court. The aim is to strengthen the institution’s ethical rules. It is now mentioned in the code that members are obliged to reside in Luxembourg “at the place where the Court has its seat” and that “they shall not enter into long-term rental, sub-rental, or loan agreements with staff of the Court.” In addition, the code provides that “any long-term contractual relationship between members and staff of the Court shall be declared to the Ethics Committee, which is responsible for their examination”.
On 7 April, the Members of the European Court of Auditors adopted an opinion on reforms to the financing of European political parties proposed by the Commission in 2021. The Court underlines the positive nature of the aspects aimed at increasing transparency in the financing of European political parties and invites the legislator to strengthen several of them. Members of the Court also objected to three key provisions of the reform: the possibility for European parties to finance national referendum campaigns on the EU, the full financing by the Union of European parties in European election years, and the possibility for them to receive contributions from parties and organisations outside the Union. (Contexte, 14 April 2022)
The journal Contexte has published a note written by the unit in charge of ethical issues in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Human Resources. The document specifies how applications for job mobility from European Commission employees to the private sector will be assessed. The Commission may prohibit or conditionally authorise new roles where there is a risk that they may jeopardise the legitimate interests of the institution. The check involves verifying whether former employees will be required to work in their new job on matters for which they were responsible as part of their duties at the Commission or to carry out actions representing others’ interests to the Commission. (Contexte, 29 March 2022)
On 5 April, the European Commission implemented the new procedure, which came into force in 2021, against Hungary, allowing the suspension or reduction of EU funds when it is established that violations of the rule of law by a Member State “affect or seriously risk affecting its sound financial management or the protection of the financial interests of the Union in a sufficiently direct way” (Regulation 2020/2092 on a general regime of conditionality for the protection of the Union budget). According to French daily Le Monde, the mechanism was triggered in view of difficulties identified in public procurement procedures, risks of conflicts of interest and corruption. (Le Monde, 05 April 2022)
The European Commission has analysed the report adopted by MEPs in September 2021 on the creation of a European ethics body. The Commission is in favour of an inter-institutional body, but the arrangements, such as its competences and scope, have yet to be determined. Its role, in particular that of monitoring the declarations of interest and changes in role of members of European institutions, should also be clarified. Like the European Parliament, the Commission does not wish to grant binding powers to this future body and wishes to preserve the ethical rules already in place in individual institutions. (Contexte, 11 April 2022)
On 9 March 2022, MEPs adopted a resolution on foreign interference in all democratic processes in the European Union, including disinformation, with 552 votes in favour, 81 against and 60 abstentions. The resolution mentions the need for a “coordinated strategy against foreign interference” at EU level. It states that the European Parliament “calls on the EU institutions to reform the transparency register, including by introducing more stringent transparency rules, mapping foreign funding for EU-related lobbying and ensuring an entry which allows for the identification of funding from foreign governments”.(European Parliament, 9 March 2022)
The European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has announced that she has asked the European Commission to provide information on how it intends to ensure transparency in the negotiation of national recovery plans and in the use of EU funds to support Member States in the fight against the pandemic. The Ombudsman also asked the Commission whether it was considering setting up a website to list national plans. (European Ombudsman, 24 February 2022)
The European Ombudsman has also published the conclusions of her enquiry into the “revolving door” moves of members of the European Commission. The survey covered a sample of 100 decisions taken by the Commission between 2019 and 2021 in 14 Directorates-General, all Commissioners’ Cabinets, the Commission’s Legal Service and the Secretariat-General on requests for staff to move to the private sector. Of these 100 decisions, the Commission blocked two planned changes in activities. The Ombudsman concludes that “without a more robust approach to the movement of staff to the private sector, the European Commission risks compromising the integrity of the Union’s administration. The Ombudsman calls on the Commission to be stricter in its assessment of these changes in role. It suggests temporarily forbidding (former) staff members taking jobs if they present risks that cannot be mitigated by restrictions or if the restrictions cannot be credibly monitored and enforced. It also suggests obtaining commitments from employers on the conditions thus imposed, such as making hiring conditional on the publication of restrictions on the employer’s website, alongside the profile of the former staff member. (European Ombudsman16 May 2022)
The Algerian authorities have adopted new measures to fight more effectively against the unlawful enrichment of civil servants and senior public officials. These measures will be enforced by a new authority, the High Authority for Transparency, Prevention and the fight against Corruption, created to investigate all acts of corruption and the organisation, composition and powers of which were specified in Law No. 22-08 of 4 Chaoual 1443 corresponding to 5 May 2022, which entered into force on 17 May 2022. (Algérie Part, 22 May 2022)
After making the assets of the current King of Spain, Felipe VI, public, the Government has adopted a decree aimed at consolidating transparency and integrity in the monarchy. This includes an annual audit of the finances of the Royal Household by the Spanish Court of Auditors. The contracts, budgets and assets of senior palace staff will be made public. Gifts received by the Royal Family will have to be declared. (Franceinfo, 28 April 2022)
The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement Act 2022) has come into force after being passed in the UK Parliament on 15 March 2022. The Act includes the creation of a new Register of Overseas Entities which will require anonymous foreign owners of UK property to disclose their identity. This measure will apply retroactively to property purchased in the last 20 years. It will be accompanied by sanctions for withholding information. The Act also revises Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). A UWO is a tool to combat unlawful financial flows, which was introduced in the UK Act of 2017. (BBC News, 8 March 2022, Euractiv, 16 March 2022)