Ethics über alles

EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Former European Commission Vice President in charge of the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes.

Kroes’ Uber appointment is damaging to the European Commission and the European Union


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Kroes’ Uber appointment is the real problem that the European Commission is facing, not (just) her involvement in the Bahamas offshore company, or the potential conflict of interests that could arise from allegedly having the son of a co-director of that company take an internship in the European Commission during her tenure.

18 months. That’s how long European Commissioners have to wait before working for any entity they choose, without the Commission’s ethics board stamp of approval.

In May of this year, the Uber transportation app company appointed former Vice-President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, to its public policy board.

Uber is a company that has revolutionised transport around the world. They have broken state-imposed monopolies and made point-to-point transfers accessible while increasing employment and tax revenue in the countries they operate.

But – it only takes a quick review of Kroes’ Uber-related public statements during her time at the Commission, to see how damaging this appointment is to the image not only of the European Commission but of the European Union as a construct. Ultimately, her appointment could prove damaging to Uber’s image as well.

For five years, Kroes dictated digital policy, and as it happens, was Uber’s champion in the Berlaymont, the European Commission headquarters.

On the 15th of April, 2014, Kroes even zealously overstepped.

Upset with a decision of a Brussels court to ban Uber, Kroes made a public statement on the European Commission’s website where she said among other things:

“I am outraged at the decision today by a Brussels court to ban Uber, the taxi-service app.” The then Commissioner proceeded to prod citizens to send tweets and messages to the responsible Brussels Regional Minister in support of Uber. “Tell her what you think by tweeting to @BGrouwels or sending feedback here or showing that #UberIsWelcome .”

p3-uber

A picture from an archived European Commission website page, of a blog post by Neelie Kroes’. See the full webpage with her comments here: https://goo.gl/i667gY Photo Credit: European Union

The cherry on the cake was Kroes showing how much she is personally invested (not financially, but certainly emotionally and personally) in Uber:

“I’ve met the founders and investors in Uber. My staff have used the service around the world to stay safe and save taxpayers money. Uber is 100% welcome in Brussels and everywhere else as far as I am concerned.”

This hard, pro-Uber line, would not have been problematic, if two years later, Kroes had not joined Uber’s public policy board.

There is no proof that Kroes was bribed or offered the position while she was still on her Berlaymont throne. Indeed there is not even a hint of suspicion of a bribery case, or any wrong doing.

But. A Commissioner, should not compromise the image of the institution or indeed the European Union during, or after their mandate. Kroes’ Uber appointment allows for allegations to be made, by populists who seek to destroy the foundations upon which the EU was built.

Kroes’ appointment is compromising, as it has made the position of European Commissioner look like a gateway to the private sector. Kroes’ appointment is worse than the Goldman Sachs appointment of the former President, José Manuel Barroso. Barroso, unlike Kroes, did not make massive statements in favour of his new employer while he was President.

Commissioners, like Caesar’s wife, must remain above suspicion. Unlike Ceasar’s wife, they must also remain above suspicion after the divorce.

Uber lobbied Kroes very successfully. Uber is very active in lobbying the European Commission (and not just), having held 19 meetings with Commissioners and top level officials during this Commission term (including four Commissioners and two Vice-Presidents of the Commission).

The company has done nothing wrong, but benefit from the rules that are in place.

Kroes on the other hand, has shown a pro-industry interest on more than one occasion, the most critical of which is when while Competition Commissioner, she shut down multiple competition investigations for the case of roaming that would have found several companies were in breach of the EU’s competition rules.

Commissioners have a good pension, but that should not be their “worst case scenario”.  The position of Commissioner, which approaches that of a Minister of the European Union, should not be seen by the public as having the possibility to join the private sector with astronomical contracts by planning and executing specific actions favouring individual companies during their terms in the Berlaymont.

Kroes’ Uber appointment has rendered her a stain on the European Commission’s name, calling into question whether the rules are sufficient. They may be the strictest in the world as chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas keeps reiterating, but they are not strict enough. The fact that the Commission does it better than any single country or member state is not good enough.

The EU’s GDP has surpassed both China and the US, the EU Commissioners regulate the biggest market in the world, and should be held to the appropriate standard.

With this in mind, is this the image of the European Commission that President Jean-Claude Juncker wants to leave behind as his legacy? The image and ethics of the European project, are indeed a rather ‘Big Thing’ after all.

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