Spain’s new Socialist government faces its first ethical dilemma: Should Nadia Calviño, the economy and enterprise minister, be forced to resign from her job as a top European Union official in Brussels?
Calviño, who until June 6 was director general of the European Commission’s budget department, has not formally quit the EU institution, a Commission spokesperson told POLITICO.
Instead she has taken leave from her job in Brussels on “personal grounds.”
Calviño’s appointment received widespread praise — because she knows the EU inside-out and was the civil servant in charge of steering the next long-term EU budget — but those qualities could now result in a potential conflict of interest.
While negotiations on the next EU budget will likely be handled by María Jesús Montero, Spain’s treasury minister, one of Calviño’s chief tasks will be to lobby her former colleagues and political masters to get a good deal for Spain. The Commission’s proposed €25 billion fund to support national economic reforms and its nearly €100 billion proposed research budget would both have ties to her new department, according to a 2016 royal decree outlining Spanish government responsibilities.
According to EU staff regulations, “permission shall not be granted to an official for the purpose of his engaging in an occupational activity, whether gainful or not, which involves lobbying or advocacy vis-à-vis his institution and which could lead to the existence or possibility of a conflict with the legitimate interests of the institution.”
Calviño’s path is an uncommon one, but not without precedent.
In 2009, Ladislav Miko made the jump from the Commission’s environment department to be environment minister in the Czech government. Michel Barnier, now the EU’s Brexit negotiator (a civil service post), left his role as a European Commissioner in 2004 to become foreign minister of France. He later returned to the Commission. Josep Borrell, Calviño’s new colleague in the Spanish cabinet, was in 2012 forced out of an EU role — as president of the European University Institute — amid conflict of interest allegations.
European commissioners are required to wait out a two-year “cooling-off” period before taking on roles that may have a conflict of interest with their Commission posts.
In recent years senior Commission figures such as former President José Manuel Barroso and former Vice President Neelie Kroes have been criticized for taking roles at Goldman Sachs and Uber respectively, even though both complied with the rules.
All other Commission officials are required to notify and request permission under Article 12b of the EU Staff Regulations before taking up any paid role outside the European Commission.
Asked if any special conditions had been attached to Calviño’s leave, a Commission spokesperson said: “While on unpaid leave on personal grounds, she will not receive an income nor be entitled to advancement to a higher step in the grade; membership of the social security scheme for officials of the European Union will be suspended.”
A Brussels-based Spanish government spokesperson said: “We have followed the usual bureaucratic procedures in these cases.”
Spain’s ministers are bound by a code of good governance agreed in 2005. That code states that Cabinet ministers “shall refrain from any private activity or interest which may entail a risk of posing conflicts of interest with their public post.”
Spain’s Popular Party, which was ousted from government by the Socialists, faced nearly a decade of investigations into kickbacks given to conservative politicians in exchange for public contracts. The possibility that more than €100 million in fraudulent payments was made to Popular Party politicians led to the downfall of Mariano Rajoy’s government.
The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body found in January 2018 that Spain had not fully implemented any of its 11 recommendations for cleaning up Spanish political and judiciary bodies, despite a four-year window to do so.
Spain has consistently slipped down Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index since 2012, ranking 20th out of the EU’s 28 member countries in 2017.
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