How could a rule of law approach to ethics help to restore institutional trust in the EU?

by | May 14, 2024

(May 13, 2024 – CEPS) 


  • Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
  • Emilia Korkea-aho, Professor of European Law and Legislative Studies, UEF Law School, University of Eastern Finland
  • Karel Lannoo, CEO, CEPS
  • Shari Hinds, Transparency International
  • Julia Pocze, Research Assistant, CEPS


  • Sergio Carrera, Senior Research Fellow and Head of Justice and Home Affairs unit

The aim of the conference organized by CEPS was to identify and highlight major ethical concerns within the European Union and propose comprehensive reforms to address them. Speakers tried to examine the current challenges facing EU institutions, understand the deficiencies in ethical mechanisms, and formulate recommendations to strengthen ethical governance, with a focus on the Qatargate scandal and the European Commission’s proposal for an interinstitutional ethics body. This proposed body aims to standardize ethical standards across EU institutions, covering areas such as gifts, transparency in meetings with interest groups, financial disclosure, and post-employment activities. However, participants noted that while the establishment of the Ethics Body represents progress in preventing another Qatargate, it may not fully address the current challenges because it is the entire culture and accountability that must change and evolve today.

Assessment of current issues

Some ethical concerns need addressing at the EU level, but what are the main issues? According to Karel Lannoo, CEO of CEPS, the Qatargate scandal has highlighted the inadequate response of the European Parliament, indicating an institutional weakness. Questioning whether the measures taken are sufficient, he stressed the importance of a strict code of ethics to restore citizens’ trust in EU institutions. Lannoo emphasized that this issue goes beyond mere ethics: it also involves neglecting basic rules and may constitute a criminal offense if bribery is accepted. Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman, stressed the vital importance of the rule of law in the European Union, warning against any disregard for this principle. She’s worried about a trend towards authoritarianism in certain member states, made worse by problems within EU institutions. Despite attempts to tackle issues with new rules and procedures, scandals persist, including MEPs behaving unethically by accepting improper money. O’Reilly pointed out problems with existing mechanisms like the EU Transparency Register, citing limited resources and accuracy issues. She also highlighted cases where former EU leaders took questionable roles, calling for more transparency and accountability. O’Reilly criticized the lack of rules on side jobs held by those in the European Parliament and doubts if new laws can fix systemic issues. However, she suggested creating a new independent ethics body could help, pushing institutions to review and improve their internal systems. She sees the EU’s governance structure as overly focused on laws and urges broad reforms for better accountability and democracy.

Emilia Korkea-aho, a European Law Professor, stressed the importance of focusing on staff conduct and simplifying EU lobbying regulations to encourage ethical behavior. She argued for structural changes to protect the EU from both internal and external threats. Korkea-aho emphasized that transparency alone isn’t sufficient for promoting ethical behavior and called for a culture of accountability and responsibility within EU institutions. Her remarks highlighted the challenges of navigating ethical dilemmas within the EU’s institutional framework and emphasized the need for proactive measures. Understanding and adhering to ethical rules in the EU is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly for staff and politicians. The consensus at the conference was the necessity to prioritize staff behavior and foster a culture of accountability. However, the complexity of lobbying rules poses a significant challenge. Simplifying these regulations is crucial to ensure clarity and understanding for all involved, reducing the risk of confusion and non-compliance. Then, she suggested moving away from a victim mentality and adopting a proactive approach to addressing challenges, as well as calling for the EU to take responsibility for its actions or inactions.

Finally, Shari Hinds, representing Transparency International, echoed the calls for transparency and accountability as foundational pillars for upholding the rule of law. She emphasized the importance of the establishment of an independent authority tasked with ensuring the integrity and accountability of EU public administrators as well as robust enforcement mechanisms to deter unethical behavior and restore public trust in EU institutions. Her contributions underscored the urgency of implementing comprehensive reforms to strengthen ethical governance within the EU and bolster its democratic principles.

Proposals for ethical reform

Then, what could and should be done? Julia Pocze, Research Assistant at CEPS, elaborated on the deficiencies of the European Commission’s proposal for an interinstitutional ethics body. She emphasized the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the ethical oversight framework, advocating not only for the creation of an independent authority but also for endowing it with robust enforcement powers. Pocze underscored that this authority should possess the capability to impose sanctions on EU institution members found in breach of ethical standards. Additionally, she proposed the adoption of a uniform code of ethics applicable to all EU institution members to standardize ethical guidelines and bolster transparency in decision-making processes. Julia Pocze aptly explained that the current structure of the EU is designed to address problems from 20 or 30 years ago, not those of today. She emphasized the need to recognize that the EU has evolved, with new member states due to integration and new threats emerging. Therefore, it’s crucial to reconsider the structure itself to adapt to these changes.

Furthermore, Pocze emphasized the imperative of ensuring accountability by transparently publishing the outcomes of investigations and the sanctions imposed by this authority. By doing so, she argued, citizens would be better informed about the actions taken to uphold ethical standards within EU institutions. However, despite these proposals for reform, concerns were expressed regarding the perceived lack of widespread enthusiasm for such initiatives, as evidenced by the low interest during the annual publication of the rule of law report in July. Some ideas from her article that you can refer to here.

Link to the event with a video recording:

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