EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The European Commission's Ethical Committee has given the green light to ex-single market commissioner Charlie McCreevy i to take up a position with low-cost airline Ryanair. Meanwhile, lobbying watchdogs have complained that taking top corporate jobs after leaving office "is becoming the normal career path for commissioners."
EUobserver has learnt that the EU executive's Ethical Committee has found there to be no conflict of interest arising from Mr McCreevy's planned move, but has requested that while working for his new employer, which has in the past had a series of legal run-ins with the commission, he not offer any advice relating to commission decisions or activity regarding Ryanair which he was involved in while in office.
Mr McCreevy's portfolio in the commission involved supervising the EU's internal market rather than the transport sector, which could be considered more directly relevant to his new post.
However, all decisions taken by the college of commissioners are collective decisions and during his time in office a number of moves were taken relating to the no-frills Irish airline, ranging from taking on airline websites that rip off customers to blocking the company's attempts to buy competitor Aer Lingus.
The precise wording of the committee's finding will only be released after Mr McCreevy has been contacted to inform him of its decision.
The EU executive maintains no criteria on what constitutes a conflict of interest per se. Instead, the three-man committee makes a personal assessment of a single line in the EU treaty: "After their term of office, they will respect ... their duty to behave with integrity and discretion as regards the acceptance ... of certain appointments or benefits."
In the ex-Irish-commissioner's case, the committee is of the opinion that the move is in conformity with the treaty.
In the event that the committee finds there has been a breach of these obligations, a simple majority in the Council of Ministers or the EU commission can pass consideration of the matter to the European Court of Justice, which can then rule that the individual is stripped of his or her pension benefits.
This level of sanction has never been imposed.
Three commissioners from the first Barroso college so far have given notice to the current commission of plans to take up corporate executive positions.
Former external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has moved in with re-insurance giant Munich Re, and last week, EUobserver reported that ex-industry commissioner and German Social-Democrat Guenter Verheugen has joined what was until recently the largest financial institution in the world, the now nationalised British bank RBS.
The Ethical Committee on 19 January gave the green light to Ms Ferrero-Waldner's move, while also issuing a similar caveat.
"Should commissioner Ferrero-Waldner come across subjects related to her previous functions as commissioner, she should ensure the confidentiality of the sensitive and confidential information acquired during her mandate, such as concerning political risks related to certain countries," the committee said.
When EU or other government officials are taken on board by companies - a practice calld "revolving doors" by lobbying watchdogs - they are normally valued for their network of contacts and the related political leverage rather than their technical expertise.
When RBS announced it had hired Mr Verheugen, the company's press release explicitly underscored this aspect of what attracted the company to the ex-commissioner: "His experience in European politics and its national and international contacts are very valuable for RBS," the statement read.
In April this year, London School of Economics researchers published a study which considered parallel US cases of revolving-door employment by ex-government officials. It found that the work dropped off once their network was no longer of use.
"Lobbyists with past working experience in the office of a US senator suffer an average 21 percent drop in generated revenue when that senator leaves office. The effect is immediate, it is discontinuous around the exit period and it persists in the long-term," the study reads.
Commissioners ‘For Sale'
Transparency pressure group Corporate Europe Observatory believes that EU officials are increasingly viewing public office as a fast-track to the high salaries of the corporate world.
"Commissioners are more or less for sale to the highest bidders," the group's Erik Wesselius told this website. "If this is becoming the normal career path for commissioners, this will of course influence their decisions while in office, who will ensure that what they do does not endanger their job prospects."
"A company like RBS is really buying Verheugen's network of contacts and his prestige as a commissioner."
"In the case of McCreevy and Ferrero-Waldner, the only restriction the committee has mentioned is a transmission of specific information ... It seems like they are not restricted from now lobbying the institution they just left."
The Ethical Committee itself is headed by Michel Petite, who performs the job part-time while working for law firm Clifford Chance. He himself was criticised in 2008 by lobby watchdogs when he moved to the firm to work on anti-trust issues after leaving his job as head of the commission's Legal Service, where he was responsible for, among other tasks, investigating anti-trust charges against Microsoft.
Its second member comes from the European Court of Justice, while its third member is Terry Wynn, a British Labour MEP for 17 years. While an MEP, he chaired the Forum for the Future of Nuclear Energy and was a board member of the European Energy Forum, two cross-party groups that have been criticised as fronts for industry lobbying.