Emilia Korkea-aho investigates the 'revolving door': politicians and senior officials who become lobbyists, and vice versa. As a result of the revelations about former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ lobbying for Uber, the little-known Brussels committee that the Finnish professor investigates has suddenly drawn attention. This is not necessarily conducive to her research.
For lobby researcher Emilia Korkea-aho, there is life before the Uber Files, and after.
Before the revelations published by international media outlets affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), hardly anyone knew about the existence of what is called the Independent Ethical Committee. Korkea-aho, professor of European law at the University of Eastern Finland, investigates this obscure Brussels club that 'even the most dedicated EU nerds have rarely heard of'. Until recently, that is.
After the ICIJ publications by forty media outlets in 29 countries, the Independent Ethical Committee was put firmly on the map. This committee told Neelie Kroes that her wish to lobby for the American tech company Uber followed too quickly on the heels of her resignation as European Commissioner for Digital Affairs. The committee advised the Commission to reject Kroes' request – advice which the Commission followed. Kroes ignored that rejection and cheerfully walked through what in the Brussels bubble is called the revolving door.
The revolving door scandal shows the faltering moral compass of the Dutch Liberal politician. ‘What struck us was that she had been told not to lobby during her cooling-off period, but then decidedly flouted the rules and helped Uber anyway,’ says Emilia Korkea-aho from Helsinki in a video call with Follow the Money.
But the issue also raises questions for Korkea-aho about the role of the European Commission and the committee she investigates.
The Finnish Emilia Korkea-aho is a professor of European law and legislative studies at the University of Eastern Finland. Since 2018, she is also a visiting fellow at the European law department of Maastricht University. Until 2025, she will investigate the phenomenon of the revolving door between public and private in Finland, France and Slovenia.
Related to this, along with French political scientist Lola Avril, she is also investigating the work of the Independent Ethical Committee. She hopes to publish the results of that research next summer.
Korkea-aho was a member of a Finnish Ministry of Justice working group, where she advised on the plans for a new lobby register. If the bill, which the Finnish parliament is expected to consider this fall, is passed, organisations and individuals who want to lobby the Finnish government will in future be required to register.
No, Emilia Korkea-aho, who is from a small village in the north of Finland, did not grow up with dreams of becoming a researcher specialising in lobbying in a European context. In fact, it took her some time to realise that lobbying was her overarching theme.
Initially, Korkea-aho focused her research on the phenomenon of ‘soft law’ – the influence of recommendations and guidelines. But, after her doctoral research, she was ready to move on. Her postdoctoral research focused on how non-EU countries tried to influence European policy on the authorization of chemicals.
In 2013, she gave a presentation on this subject. ‘Someone in the audience said: why don’t you just use the word lobbying?’ For a moment, Korkea-aho was speechless: until that moment, she hadn't realised that what she was researching was lobbying. ‘I wish I remembered who the woman in the audience was, because that comment helped frame my career. Among legal scholars, lobbying is not a popular research theme – that’s more something for political scientists.’
Now, Korkea-aho on occasion still avoids the word ‘lobby’, but consciously, because it has a negative connotation for many. ‘You can’t study lobbying or the revolving door without talking to people. I have interviewed both lobbyists and those being lobbied, and I think one of the first things I learned was that you never use the word lobbying in your introduction email.’ Only when an interviewee uses the word themselves in conversation, does Korkea-aho conclude that the term isn’t loaded for that person.
Despite its interesting content, the publication of the Uber Files might spell trouble for Korkea-aho. Along with French political scientist Lola Avril, she is investigating the work of the Independent Ethical Committee, which advised Kroes not to go to work for Uber. ‘We are hoping to interview both the current and former members of the ethical committee. I think if I had emailed the members before the Uber Files, they would have probably been happy to talk about it. Suddenly, it is a lot more sensitive.’
The committee takes action when the European Commission asks for advice in case a former European Commissioner asks for permission to accept a new position. After all, the EU treaty stipulates that a European Commissioner such as Neelie Kroes must not only behave independently and with integrity during her term, but that she may not do anything that might damage the office after having stepped down.
The Commission may ask the committee to investigate whether a new position is compatible with those integrity requirements, particularly when a European Commissioner is going to work in a sector for which she was previously responsible.
The committee consists of three members, appointed by the European Commission. As of July 20th, they are a Finnish former judge at the Court of Justice, a French former MEP and a Polish former top official of the Commission. Their judgement is non-binding. They can only act upon the Commission’s request.
Korkea-aho and her colleague Avril are examining eighty decisions by the European Commission regarding requests from former European Commissioners to take up new positions. So far, they have analysed sixty. ‘The results are thus preliminary,’ emphasises professor Korkea-aho. Most of the cases concern former members of the Juncker Commission (2014-2019), supplemented by a few from the Barroso II period (2010-2014).
‘The members of the Committee are basically googling like you and I would’
What are those preliminary results?
‘The Commission has requested the opinion of the Committee in eighteen cases out of sixty we have analysed. Most of the times when the Commission does not engage the Committee, it does not justify this decision. When it does offer justification, the Commission refers to the fact that the new occupation is not linked to the former portfolio, or that it concerns an academic activity. We spotted some inconsistencies in the ways the Commission makes its decision to request, or not to request, an opinion. For some academic positions, it engages the committee, whereas, for others, it does not.’
What about the committee's investigative capabilities?
‘The committee appears not to make full use of its power to challenge the information provided by former Commissioners by asking additional questions. They complement the information sent by the former Commissioner with public information, but they are basically googling like you and I would. Sometimes this is highlighted by phrases like “as far as the committee knows”, which shows the committee’s weakness.’
What differences are there between the Committee’s opinion and the Commission’s final assessment?
‘They often use the same sources. The Commission systematically complies with the committee’s judgement. Only in some rare cases, the tone of the Commission is harsher than that of the committee, but these might be cosmetic differences. The committee and Commission both appear hesitant to establish that a request for a new occupation is incompatible with the previous job as Commissioner. It has the air of a rubber stamping exercise.
This leads to the question of whether the committee, rather than keeping the activities of former members of the Commission in check, is legitimising them. We sometimes get the somewhat heretical idea that maybe the committee is not necessary.’
So, let's pursue this ‘heretical’ idea: can the Independent Ethical Committee be abolished?
‘I wouldn’t want to say it that firmly. We are still conducting our research.’
Let me put it differently: have you found an added value in having an Independent Ethical Committee?
‘No, we haven’t found that yet. European Commission civil servants could also do this job.’
Were you surprised that Kroes lobbied for Uber during her cooling-off period and without permission?
‘The Kroes case shows superbly how the system is failing. There is no credible monitoring or enforcement. If it were not for this leak, we would not have known that Kroes broke the rules.’
Indeed, the negative opinion of the Independent Ethical Committee was never published on the Commission’s website.
‘This is the first time we heard about the committee reaching a negative opinion, so it was surprising that the Commission had not published it. If the negative opinion about Kroes’ request was not published, perhaps there are others that have not been published. We will ask the Commission about this.’
A Commission spokesperson confirmed to Follow the Money that Kroes had asked the Commission to work for Uber in September 2015, but that Kroes withdrew that request in December of that year. ‘Since Ms Kroes had withdrawn her notification, there was no need and no justification for any Commission decision or public announcement,’ the spokesperson said.
Only after further questioning does the Commission reveal why Kroes had withdrawn her request: Commission President Juncker informed Kroes that the committee advised not to grant permission and asked her to withdraw her request.
Why would Juncker advise Kroes to withdraw her request?
‘I have no idea. I don’t understand. The Commission would look a lot tougher if in between all those positive opinions there would sometimes be a negative opinion. Now, it seems like all they do is rubber-stamping requests from former Commissioners.’
For several MEPs, the Kroes scandal is an argument to quickly establish a new watchdog – an ‘independent EU body for ethics’, in EU jargon. That watchdog would not only monitor the European Commission, but also other EU institutions. What are your thoughts on that?
‘I’m actually opposed to setting up a new ethics body without more research into the phenomenon. I am not just saying that because I am doing research on the revolving door; we don’t understand enough about the problem of the revolving door. There has been very little academic research.
The Austrian lobbying register was adopted in the aftermath of the ‘cash-for-amendments’ scandal. Journalists pretended to be lobbyists and offered money to MEPs in exchange for amendments. One of them was Austrian. Austrians were very upset, so the government quickly created a national lobby register. One of the reasons that it was done so quickly, was to give reassurances to citizens that the government takes their concerns seriously, and does something about them. But the register is not very good.’
After our conversation, Follow the Money asked for further substantiation of this claim. Korkea-aho explains that some corporate lobby groups are not required to register and that much of the information in the registry is not publicly available. She refers to a critical article by a lobbyist about the lobby registration law. In it, the author writes: ‘It is a highly populist piece of law, focused on the federal government's ability to communicate the “we-have-fixed-it” spin.’
‘The Kroes case is one of a failure of personal integrity standards’
The European Parliament wants an EU ethics body to monitor the Commission and Parliament first, with other EU institutions to follow later. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants all seven institutions to participate from the start. But the presidents of the European Court of Auditors and the Court of Justice have already informed her in a letter that their members must remain independent and cannot submit to an external body. Do you understand that argument?
‘Yes. If I had heard the opposite argument, I would be surprised. I would probably care less about the Court of Auditors and Court of Justice joining. I think it would matter a great deal more if it had been the European Central Bank and agencies like the European Chemicals Agency, the European Medicines Agency, and the financial supervisory authorities. Those are bodies that are expertise-hungry. They need experts working for them. This means they hire experts but they also lose experts to the private sector.’
Could an independent EU ethics body have prevented a scandal like the one involving Kroes?
‘No, I don’t think so. Clearly, the opinion of the independent ethical committee did not stop her. Her case is one of a failure of personal integrity standards.’
Does your research make you more cynical or Eurosceptical?
‘I don’t think so. It might be a personal trait, I tend to be quite optimistic about things. I do think that there are systematic problems, but I do not think they are non-fixable. We can fix them. But it won’t happen quickly.
Our research into European Commissioners is only the tip of the iceberg. We have the staff in the Commission, then we have other institutions and agencies. There is so much work ahead of us. I told Lola we can keep working on this until we retire.’
Translation: Chris Kok