The European Commission will draw up new guidelines for participation by its members in national election campaigns in response to complaints over Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s appearance in a Croatian campaign video.
“The Commission will clarify the practical modalities for the participation of its Members in national election campaigns in guidelines,” Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said in a letter to European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, dated January 8 and published on Thursday.
In the Croatian video from July — shared on social media two days before the country’s parliamentary election — von der Leyen, Commission Vice President Dubravka Šuica and center-right politicians such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made an appearance, each repeating the election slogan of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ): sigurna Hrvatska, which translates as “a safe Croatia.”
The Commission chief’s participation, including her decision to be filmed at the Berlaymont using Commission equipment, sparked criticism and led two watchdogs to file a formal complaint.
In a letter to the Commission on July 14, O’Reilly wrote that “concerns are well-founded” and that “in light of the disquiet and concerns raised, including by the wider public, I consider it important that the Commission clarifies these issues.” The ombudsman pointed to concerns about whether the Commission’s Code of Conduct is sufficiently clear, the need to strengthen independent oversight and how rules are applied to the president herself.
The Code of Conduct allows commissioners to participate in national politics as members of political parties but also notes that if members “intend to stand for election or otherwise play an active role in the election campaign, they must withdraw from the work of the Commission for the entire period of active implication and at least for the duration of the campaign.” The code, however, leaves room for discretion, allowing the president to decide if the member’s envisaged participation is compatible with Commission duties.
Following initial criticism in July, a Commission spokesperson said that the clip “was meant as a contribution in [von der Leyen’s] personal capacity. Regrettably, this was not made clear in the final version of the video.”
Šefčovič, in his latest letter to the European Ombudsman, said: “It remains the responsibility of every individual Member of the Commission to decide if he or she wants, or deems opportune, to participate in a national election campaign. If a Member decides to do so, the participation has to comply with Article 9 of the Code of Conduct and the future guidelines.”
Critics welcomed the Commission’s announcement, but some say more action is needed.
“The EU Commission’s commitment to adopt guidelines clarifying how EU Commissioners may participate in national election campaigns is praiseworthy and must be welcomed,” said Alberto Alemanno, director of The Good Lobby, one of the groups who filed a complaint over the video.
“The crux of the matter lies in how these guidelines and ethical standards are — and will be — enforced,” he said, adding that since the enforcement of the Code of Conduct is “entrusted to the Commission itself and notably its President, the EU Commission’s ethics framework falls short — by design — of ensuring an independent, open and effective oversight mechanism over the Commissioners’ behavior.”
There is a “need to urgently set up an independent EU Ethics Body common to all EU institutions,” he said.
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