Josep Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament and an ex-minister in Spanish socialist governments, has been forced to resign as president of the European University Institute (EUI) in the face of allegations of a conflict of interest.
Borrell is being paid €300,000 a year as a board member of the Spanish sustainable-energy company Abengoa, a post he has held since July 2009, when he left the European Parliament. The EUI apparently only became aware of this in recent weeks, after comments in the Spanish press.
Under the rules of the EUI, a postgraduate research institute set up in the 1970s and now supported by 19 European national governments, Borrell should have declared his financial interest.
At the beginning of this month, Borrell sent an email to staff at the institute, of which he had become president in January 2010, informing them that he had offered to resign because of a “procedural error”.
A spokesman for the EUI told European Voice this week that the governing board of the EUI, which is composed of representatives from each contracting government, had decided to accept the resignation but would not make an official announcement of Borrell's departure or his replacement until it meets in June. Borrell will continue to serve as president until the end of the academic year, 31 August.
The EUI was set up to foster “the advancement of learning in fields which are of particular interest for the development of Europe”. Its involvement in energy issues has been growing in recent years. The Florence School of Regulation, which studies the effects of energy law, was created within the EUI in autumn 2009 before Borrell arrived. In 2010, after his arrival, he created the Climate Policy Research Unit. Next month, Borrell is scheduled to deliver the opening remarks at the EUI's annual State of the Union conference. Half of the two-day conference will be devoted to energy issues.
The EUI's researcher representatives, who are elected to represent the doctoral students, responded to Borrell's email with a letter in which they accused him of pushing energy interests.
They said the way he characterised his failure to declare his interest in Abengoa as a “procedural error” was an understatement. It was a clear case of conflict of interest, they said, because the institute is involved in energy and climate change. That research can feed into standards for biofuel.
Abengoa specialises in biofuel and solar and other forms of renewable energy.
“It is difficult to articulate what shocks us the most: the fact that you are engaged in a parallel position in a company specialised in biofuels, the salary accompanying said position, or the tone of your email that we received,” the student representatives wrote.
“Abengoa has been one of the key corporations lobbying in favour of the EU biofuel target,” said Nina Holland from transparency campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory.
Borrell insists that both his positions – as a director of Abengoa and president of the EUI – were public knowledge. But an Abengoa press release from April 2010 summarising an event they had organised identifies Borrell only as president of the EUI, without mentioning that he was a member of the Abengoa board.
Borrell was elected to the European Parliament in 2004 and was immediately made its president, holding that office for two-and-a-half years. His election as president, despite not having no experience as an MEP, was controversial, but was built on his reputation in Spanish politics, where between 1984 and 1996 he had been treasury minister, and minister for public works, transport and environment. He chaired the European Parliament's development committee from 2007 until leaving the Parliament in 2009.
The University of Lleida in Catalonia announced this month that it was appointing Borrell to a professorship of competition and regional development sponsored by Repsol, another energy company.