The European Court of Auditors recently found significant failings in the management of conflicts of interest of several European regulatory agencies, including the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) (“EU agencies criticised over conflicts of interest”, 18-24 October, and “EMA's cash management under spotlight”, 31 October-7 November). The auditors concluded that, “none of the selected agencies adequately managed the conflict of interest situations” – not a mild critique coming from such a high-level institution.
The European Parliament's response has been puzzling. Earlier this year, it postponed discharge of the EFSA and EMA accounts because of bad conflict-of-interest management; however, at its latest plenary, the Parliament approved the two agencies' accounts. As for the ECHA's accounts, the Parliament approved them in May, but said that it would consider the auditors' findings on conflicts of interest. The court's report was critical, but has had no effect on the Parliament's approval of the ECHA's accounts.
The investigation uncovered compelling examples of wrongdoings in all four agencies. The ECHA has responded that the investigation was prior to its new conflict-of-interest policy and has denied any conflict of interest. The agency's transparency and ethics standards leave, however, something to be desired. Earlier this year, it released a list of its staff only after Friends of the Earth Europe and ClientEarth submitted an access-to-information request. By way of comparison, the European Commission's directory of staff can be found online. The ECHA's new policy on conflicts of interest also fails to address the ‘revolving door' problem. Outgoing staff can still take up industry lobby jobs without any conditions. ECHA argues that the temporary nature of the contracts in the agency is an obstacle to the imposition of cooling-off periods. When it comes to public trust, ECHA fails to see the real problems of insufficient transparency and conflicts of interest. The auditors' report should be a wake-up call. In future, the Parliament should use its rights to scrutinise agencies to promote higher ethical standards.