Ethics and integrity for Commissioners
The European Union Treaties provide that the independence of Members of the European Commission must be beyond doubt, and that Commissioners must behave with integrity and discretion throughout and after the end of their term of office.
Member States may not to try to influence European Commissioners. Commissioners may not engage in other occupations during their term of office and must continue to behave with integrity and discretion after their mandate.
The obligation of professional secrecy, which binds all staff of the European institutions, also applies to Commissioners.
Code of Conduct for the Members of the European Commission
The Code of Conduct sets out how European Commissioners need to apply their obligations of independence and integrity in practice.
The Commission put the first such code in place in 1999. The latest and most comprehensive version came into force on 1 February 2018.
Declarations of interests
A main feature is the publication of declarations of interests. In these declarations, individual European Commission Members are obliged to declare any positions held in the last ten years, their financial interests which could give rise to a conflict of interest and their membership of bodies intended to influence the exercise of public functions. This obligation also applies to Commissioners-designate and the President-elect before they take up their functions.
The European Parliament examines the declarations in the context of the hearings of Commissioners-designate before their appointment. The declarations are updated at least on an annual basis, scrutinised under the authority of the President of the Commission and then published. They are also available in a machine-readable format.
Those declarations are only one aspect of the Commission's drive for greater transparency. The Commission also leads by example by publishing information on the meetings held between Commissioners and interest representatives as well as the costs of Commissioners' individual business travel. A list of gifts which Commissioners receive in their official capacity is also available to the public.
Commissioners play an important political role. They have political responsibility and are accountable to the European Parliament. The Code of Conduct provides therefore that they can participate in the democratic life of the Union and its Member States, as it is the case for national public office-holders. There are, however, certain conditions and restrictions which distinguish between participation in EU-wide politics and national politics.
Post term of office activities
Just like any other EU citizen, Commissioners have the right to pursue a professional career after the end of their mandate. However, in order to ensure that former Commissioners continue to respect the principles of independence, integrity and discretion, the Code of Conduct provides for a two-year scrutiny period (three years for the former Commission President). Commissioners are obliged to notify the professional activities in which they intend to engage during this period. If the intended activity is linked to the Commissioner's former portfolio, the Commission can only give its approval after having consulted the Independent Ethical Committee.
In the event of a breach of their obligations, the Court of Justice may deprive former Commissioners of their rights to a pension or other benefits. Such sanctions are exceptional compared to most national systems intended to uphold standards in public life. The Commission may also decide, taking into account the Opinion of the Independent Ethical Committee and on proposal of the President, to express a reprimand and, where appropriate, make it public.
In any case, the President of the European Commission always has the power to ask individual Commissioners to resign.