EU ethics cop plan coming in March, European Commission vows
A Commission vice president holds out the possibility that a new ethics body could have investigative and sanctioning power.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission plans to present its long-stalled proposal for an overarching EU ethics body in March, Vice President Věra Jourová said Tuesday amid mounting pressure on Brussels to show it’s taking integrity seriously as corruption allegations swirl.
Speaking to European Parliament members in Strasbourg, Jourová said the proposal for an independent ethics body would aim to help eight EU institutions have “common, clear and high standards” and “similar control mechanisms,” all while respecting different institutions’ “particularities.”
Yet Jourová also highlighted the challenge of aligning rules for entities as varied as the European Parliament, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice. Her goal, she said, is to offer a plan that is “politically feasible but also meaningful,” and that could also serve as a “preventive measure” against lapses.
Private reluctance from the various institutions — even as they express public support for more oversight — has stymied these efforts for years.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for Jourová to work on the effort when they both took office in 2019. Parliament also adopted its own resolution in 2021 backing the idea. Yet after years of negotiations that highlighted political and legal obstacles to an ethics enforcer with teeth, Jourová said late last year that she was leaning toward more of an advisory body with little power to investigate or punish wrongdoing.
Advocates for more stringent integrity standards are now hoping the recent Qatargate scandal — involving accusations that countries like Qatar and Morocco may have paid off MEPs — would expand the scope of what might be “politically feasible” in an ethics body.
In her remarks to the plenary Tuesday, Jourová said the oversight entity “might be about investigation and probably also sanctioning.” But finding a way to do this legally remains a challenge, she noted.
The proposal would apply to the Commission, the Council of the EU, the Parliament, the European Central Bank, the Court of Auditors, the Court of Justice, the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. Jourová also mentioned declarations of assets and conflicts of interest as factors that could fall within the ethics body’s mandate.
The ethics body can’t replace investigatory bodies that look into criminal acts, such as the European Anti-Fraud Office and the European Public Prosecutor, Jourovà said, adding also that it would serve as an “extra layer” beyond each institution’s own internal measures to enforce rules.
It also can’t serve as a substitute conscience. “We all have our responsibility. We have high functions, and we should all have some moral compass,” she said, drawing applause in the plenary chamber.
MEPs are on track to add their own political momentum to the ethics body push on Thursday, when they will vote on a resolution urging the Commission to detail its plans.
Negotiators are zeroing in on the final text of the resolution, which would call on the Commission to publish its proposal “by latest March,” according to a draft obtained by POLITICO.
The draft resolution calls for the ethics body to have “a list of agreed tasks to propose and advise on cases and rules” that would apply to relevant officials before, during and after their service.
It should have the “right to start investigations on its own” and be able to “check the veracity of the declaration of financial interests,” the draft states.
Whether the Council of the EU — whose ministry-linked diplomats are also subject to national laws — would sign on to a unified ethics system remains a major question mark. After a lengthy debate in Strasbourg on Tuesday, a high-level Council representative was noncommittal.
“We stand ready to consider the work on the coming proposal,” said Jessika Roswall, EU affairs minister for Sweden, which currently holds the rotating Council presidency. “We all need to live up to the high expectations and standards when it comes to ethics and transparency.”
Eddy Wax contributed reporting from Strasbourg.