Note for the attention of
Mr S. Mallia, EESC Group I President
Mr O. Röpke, EESC Group II President
Mr S. Boland, EESC Group III President
Subject : CONT Committee’s decision to propose to the EP plenary NOT TO GRANT the 2020 discharge to the EESC !
Observing that nothing was done, that nothing has changed, but that cases of harassment have even increased in 2020, the CONT is calling for an INDEPENDENT EXTERNAL INVESTIGATION to examine, in particular, the responsibilities, including financial responsibilities, of the hierarchy of the EESC Administration!
I. Factual background
i. R&D alongside the staff
R&D, as the largest trade union in the European civil service, has among its missions to defend colleagues and take action to ensure that their situations of psychological abuse in their workplace cease and are officially recognised.
As soon as we were informed of the vexations and unacceptable treatment of EESC colleagues, we put at their disposal our pool of specialists, set up at central level by Federal R&D, todefend colleagues who were victims of harassment by providing them with all the assistance they needed.
In particular, for months, R&D assisted the colleagues concerned, who asked for our assistance, and we accompanied them in all their endeavours, even those that were unsuccessful towards the EESC Administration and subsequently before the OLAF. On the other hand, by resorting to our right and duty to alert, we began our steps and through our innumerable notes under reference, we questioned, still in vain, the Secretary General and the former President Jahier, on the alleged cases of harassment within the EESC.
ii. OLAF’s report confirms all the grounds for our actions
In particular, the results of the investigation carried out in an exemplary manner by OLAF confirmed once and for all the serious facts we reported by finding the existence of several proven cases of psychological harassment and other inappropriate behaviour of which our colleagues were victims.
Because of the seriousness of these acts — harassment being a criminal offence — the cases were referred to the Belgian criminal court.
iii. The EP rejects the EESC discharge
Faced with the EESC’s attitude to deny and trivialise everything, the CONT Committee and the EP were first forced to postpone and then refuse the 2018 EESC discharge.
As regards the 2019 discharge exercise, noting the failure to resolve the very serious problems underlying the refusal to grant the 2018 discharge, the option of a further refusal to grant the discharge (which would have plunged the EESC into an irremediable political crisis calling into question its very existence) was raised.
The EP had nevertheless decided to grant the EESC discharge for 2019, confirming all its requests and criticisms but sending the new President a message of firmness and encouragement in order to carry out to carry the long-awaited reforms. In the context of the 2020 discharge, like ourselves, the CONT Commission was forced to note that this appropriation had remained without any real follow-up.
II. A sad fact : we can no longer expect anything from the President and her Secretary General
In our previous communications, we in turn expressed the wish that, under the presidency of Ms Christa Schweng, the EESC would finally overcome the deep political and credibility crisis that has affected this institution for too long.
In particular, in our note of 5 July 2021 ( link ), we drew her attention to the problematic aspects of the 2020 discharge procedure and invited her to take all necessary measures to avoid the EESC being confronted, once again, with a political crisis by being denied discharge by the EP.
Indeed, while the facts showed that it was pointless to count on the EESC Secretary-General and his HR Director to get the EESC out of this political crisis, we had taken seriously and warmly welcomed the new President’s initial statements, especially in her interview with Politico in March 2021 (POLITICO EU Confidential: German election journey — EESC in spotlight – POLITICO), which raised the following question: “Is this institution bound to remain a relief from a bygone era, or will the necessary reforms help the EESC regain importance in Brussels and beyond?”
We particularly appreciated her stated determination to change both the practices and culture of the institution, finally aligning the facts with the promises, “empty slogans” and the so-called zero tolerance approach proclaimed by the Secretary-General and the EESC administration. We took her commitments seriously, especially since, as a long-standing member of the EESC, Ms Schweng had witnessed first-hand the seriousness of the problems identified.
i. A President who has not kept her promises…
Our disappointment was that, contrary to her promises and our expectations, and at the request of the EP, the President thought it possible to completely bow to the approach of her Secretary General and HR Director and continue to follow the same disastrous scenario without real change.
ii. A President disguised as a pro deo lawyer of the Secretary-General
Just as the CONT Commission had to note in its report on the 2020 discharge, we regret to point out that the President has failed to keep her promises and has demonstrated no real willingness to clearly distance herself from the management of the EESC’s Secretary General, formerly the HR Director, whose shortcomings no longer need to be demonstrated and which have already been so clearly highlighted by the European Parliament in its various resolutions.
Since taking office, the President has consistently confirmed her full confidence in her Secretary-General with such zeal that it has become almost grotesque… such that we took the initiative of inviting her to nominate him to the European Ombudsman for the prize for the best administration among the European institutions…
This absolutely incomprehensible attitude has only worsened the political crisis with the European Parliament, which has thus seen all its criticisms, requests for explanations and proposals for action to be implemented with respect to our colleagues who were victims of very serious harassment and other inappropriate behaviour, victims assisted by R&D, whose facts were noted by OLAF in its report, swept aside in a single stroke.. It is now clear that the President’s willingness to simply “turn the page”, “look only towards the future” is evidence of a lack of willingness to shed light on the mistakes of the past, which does not guarantee that they cannot be repeated in the future.
iii. The devastating impact on the credibility and attractiveness of the EESC as an employer: “Quousque tandem abutere patientia nostra?”
As a result, the deep crisis that is seriously damaging the reputation and credibility of the EESC is aggravated, with the staff being the first victim. This is undoubtedly at the root of the recruitment difficulties encountered by its services as well as the requests for external mobility from our colleagues.
The situation has become so disastrous that the need to make the EESC an attractive place of work has become one of the five objectives of the Secretariat-General’s work programme for 2022… Without, of course, any prior consideration of who is responsible for the current disaster….
III. We appeal to you as Group Presidents and EESC Bureau members
In these circumstances, since we can no longer expect anything from the President, her Secretary-General and her HR Director, we are addressing you and your responsibilities as EESC Group Presidents and members of its bureau to put an end to distasteful charade, which has already lasted far too long and which is repeated, each time, worse and worse, on the occasion of each discharge procedure.
Indeed, the EESC Bureau, of which you are members, is now seen as a mere recording chamber and a systematic and critical support for the decisions taken by the Secretary-General, particularly but not only in the context of the discharge procedure.
IV. The EESC’s 2020 discharge exercise… nothing changes in the Secretary-General’s scenario… business as usual… everything is fine, everything is very fine Honourable Members of the CONT Committee!
In our note of 5 July ( link ), we drew Ms Schweng’s attention to the fact that the EESC Secretary-General, in full consistency with the disastrous approach that had already caused the EP to refuse to grant discharge in the past, was indulging in the same clumsy posturing.
By denying what the EESC believes can still be denied, trivialising what can still be trivialised, “forgetting” to mention certain details… and only recognising what has become impossible to deny…
And by promising to set up new procedures… to change everything so that nothing changes… Definitely the Guépard seems to be his favourite bedside book…
In keeping with our always constructive approach to defending the EESC’s credibility and reputation, which have been so badly undermined by such disastrous management, we took the opportunity in our above-mentioned note of 5 July ( link ) to draw the President’s attention to the issues that were still open and that would have been addressed in the context of the 2020 discharge.
Unsurprisingly, these are exactly the same aspects that are included in the reasoning of the CONT Committee’s decision not to propose granting discharge to the EESC for financial year 2020 as well.
It is worth quoting from the press release that was issued in this regard:
“European Economic and Social Committee. Budgetary Control committee recommended postponing the discharge by 17 votes to 11 and 1 abstentions. In accompanying resolution MEPs regret the slow implementation of the settlement agreements with a victim of moral harassment as well as delays of reaching of settlement agreements with two other victims of serious misconduct, by pointing that the actions taken by the management of the Committee in this regard “have been neither effective nor decisive”.
And, in support of its decision, CONT mentioned in its report the following aspects:
i. Regarding the EESC’s denial of truth and the obligation to conduct an EXTERNAL AND INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION to examine, inter alia, the financial responsibilities of the hierarchy of the EESC Administration :
“Regrets that the Committee still fails to accept responsibility or conduct an external investigation to review the seriousness of the abuse, and urges the Committee to conduct such investigation and to publicly apologise to all the victims of misconduct and moral harassment by the former President of Group I, which was promised by the management of the Committee;
Regrets that its unambiguous calls for an internal exercise of accountability have been consistently ignored and insists on the need for an external and independent investigation to determine the responsibility of the administrative hierarchy of the Committee; and, where applicable, apply Article 22 of the Staff Regulation; requests an external investigation to review the Committee’s human resources procedures and effectiveness with a focus on addressing harassment claims and ensuring staff well-being; ’ »
ii. Regarding the absolutely unacceptable and regrettable lack of concern of the EESC President towards the victims :
“Regrets that since the virtual meetings between the two victims of serious misconduct and the Committee president in March 2021, the Committee has not yet reached settlement agreements with the victims and that ever since the actions taken by the management of the Committee have been neither effective nor decisive”
Recalls that Parliament had asked the President of the Committee, in the context of the 2019 discharge, to play an active role in negotiating a settlement with the victims, with the aim of reaching a fair and satisfactory agreement agreed by all parties, and to prevent any conflict of interest and for the Committee to publicly apologise to the victims, which, unfortunately, did not happen”..
iii.Regarding the laughable and outrageous nature of the explanations given by the EESC’s Secretary-General to justify his inaction towards the victims, whom he even dares to accuse of being responsible for his inaction, for which he alone is responsible :
“Rejects the view of the Committee’s secretary general that the fact that those two victims are no longer working in the Committee is a valid justification for not having reached settlement agreements; reminds the Committee the several communications sent by the victim that left the Committee in 2017; emphasizes that this victim had not seen any initial proposal from the administration until mid-2021, whereas the complaints to the secretary general of the Committee date back to early 2019, and therefore strongly condemns the statement by the secretary general indicating that the delay of the settlement was the fault of the victim; notes that the victim of serious misconduct who is a former Committee member made several requests to the Committee president during the virtual meeting in March 2021, including a public apology from the Committee to the victims, full settlement of compensation for the victims and an external investigation into harassment within the Committee;
iv. Regarding the absolutely intolerable fact that the victims were once again forced to deny the Secretary-General’s misleading statements to the CONT Committee :
“Regrets that these requests have not been satisfied; deeply regrets that the victims in a vulnerable situation have again been forced to publicly deny the statements of the Committee secretary general to Parliament”;
v. On the urgency of reaching fair agreements with all victims:
Notes that the settlement agreements aim to cover moral damages, legal costs and impact on careers, and is concerned that the individual negotiations at different stages of the case might result in imbalanced agreements for the victims because the cases are handled differently; urges the Committee to establish and implement suitable and fair settlement agreements for all the concerned victims as soon as possible
vi. Regarding the total lack of protection provided to the whistleblower and the threat of legal action (which has also been reserved for us)
“Reminds the Committee that the victim who is a former member also was a whistleblower that alerted the Union institutions about the former President of Group I; condemns that, contrary to Directive (EU) 2019/1937 of the European Parliament and of the Council and the Committee’s rules on whistleblowing, the Committee failed to protect the identity of the whistleblower; strongly disapproves that both the former president of the Committee and the former human resources director, now the secretary general of the Committee, attempted to take legal action against the whistleblower;
vii.With regard in particular to the unjustified inaction of the Secretary-General and the EC administration and its refusal to acknowledge, still and always, shortcomings and internal responsibilities in total breach of the duty of care towards the EESC staff:
“Recalls the investigation conducted by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in 2018 and 2019 into the harassment case involving the former President of Group I, opened after years in which shortcomings in internal procedures and unjustified inaction by the administrative hierarchy prevented a better resolution of the case; deeply regrets that the Secretary-General of the Committee still refuses to accept internal shortcomings and responsibilities, which has led to a breach of the duty of care towards the Committee’s staff;
Recalls that Parliament refused to grant discharge to the Committee’s Secretary-General for the financial year 2018, on the grounds, among other reasons, of a flagrant breach of the administration’s duty of care and inaction, along with financial consequences, and had been deeply disappointed about the lack of decisive action, in particular preventive and corrective measures, by the then Director of Human and Financial Resources, now Secretary-General, until discharge for 2018 was refused”..
viii. With regard to the fact that the European taxpayer should not have to pay the costs of such disastrous management and that all those responsible should also be called to account financially:
“Notes with concern that while it is provisionally estimated in 2020 that compensation and legal fees will cost the Committee approximately EUR 150 000, it is not yet possible to exactly quantify the final total amount of funds spent in previous years or expected to be spent on this case in the future; urges the Committee, working together with its legal service, to adopt all necessary measures to finalise this case, including claiming back from the perpetrator the corresponding amounts compensated to the victims by the Committee; regrets the low expectations for recovering the amount of public money spent and asks the Committee to provide Parliament with a detailed estimate of the amounts it hopes to recover.”
ix. Regarding the fact that, contrary to the empty promises of the EESC Secretary General, the measures put in place to combat all forms of harassment are far from satisfactory and that we are quite far from the alleged zero tolerance:
“Regrets that there were six requests for assistance related to possible cases of harassment in 2020, which proves that the preventive measures in place need to be reinforced; is aware that three of those requests are related to the case of the former President of Group I, which was referred to the Belgian judicial authorities; notes that one case was closed and one other case is also before the Belgian judicial authorities; draws attention with concern to the fact that one request was still under enquiry internally in November 2021, which makes Parliament reiterate that, while due process and individual rights must be respected, the elapse of time operates against the victims and, thus, urges the Committee to advance the treatment of that request without further delay and to report on the handling of this case;
Is aware of the harassment case reported to the Committee by a whistleblower and transmitted to OLAF in August 2020 that concerns member of staff of the CoR working in the joint services and also contains allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities; calls on the Committee and the CoR to jointly report to Parliament about the outcome of the investigation by OLAF, as well as any further internal verification or measure pending investigation;
Notes that the new decisions on harassment and whistleblowing are in the process of being adopted, but regrets that the revision of the harassment decision has been delayed since its adoption in 2021; recalls the importance of the principle of the duty of care towards staff, which includes the protection of whistle-blowers and the prevention of all forms of harassment, as well as clear and robust protection and support measures for victims; urges the Committee to apply uniform procedures for dealing with harassment cases in order to avoid any difference between victims and to ensure equal treatment of accused regardless of factors such as hierarchical level; reminds the Committee that the fact that the Staff Regulations cannot be imposed on a member of the Committee cannot be regarded as an excuse for his inaction; calls on the Committee to keep the discharge authority informed of developments in these decisions”.
x. With regard to the culture of impunity that is still in place within the EESC:
“Reiterates that any unethical behaviour by staff and members of the Union institutions and bodies hinders the sound management of the Union’s funds and negatively impacts citizens’ trust in the Union as a whole; observes with concern that, while a far-reaching overdue revision of the internal ethical framework is in process, it is undeniable that a serious breach of the Committee’s duty of care towards its members of staff has persisted for too long, creating a regrettable culture of impunity and harassment as a result of reprehensible managerial styles, illustrated by, among other elements, the recurrent emergence requests for assistance and cases reported to OLAF”
xi. Concerning the proposal to establish an internal ombudsman and the freedoms taken in this regard to divert the truth by the Secretary General concerning an alleged agreement given by the Staff Committee:
“Notes that the setting up of an internal ombudsman is one of the key measures in the action plan adopted in 2021 to strengthen the Committee’s ethical framework; points out that the decision to set up an internal ombudsman was presented as an agreement that had been welcomed by staff when, in actual fact, the Staff Committee expressed a negative opinion on it; echoes the reservations expressed by the Committee’s staff committee and legal service on the proposal with regard to the independence, impartiality and confidentiality; questions the need for such an internal ombudsman in light of, on the one hand, the human resources constrictions and, on the other hand, the existence of ethics counsellors, confidential counsellors and, in particular, the agreement with IDOC; urges the Committee to focus on enforcing the ethics-related mechanisms already in place while devoting adequate staff to its legislative work, focusing on the actual effectiveness of the measures adopted; recalls that the Ombudsman, in her Report on dignity at work in the EU institutions and agencies SI/2/2018/AMF, observes that finding investigators who are perceived to be impartial and fair can be particularly challenging in small institutions and recommends the use of external and independent investigators instead of an internal team in order to guarantee independence and neutrality.”
In this respect, in our note of 5 July ( link ), under reference, we asked the President how she could have tolerated, in her replies to the CONT Committee, that the EESC had failed to mention that, on 22 October 2021, the EESC’s Staff Committee had issued a negative opinion on the proposal for the creation of an internal mediation service, denouncing in particular the lack of independence of such a service in relation to the proposal presented by your Secretary General.
xii. As regards the EESC’s determination to call into question the independence and ability to act of the Legal Service, clearly perceived in turn as being a disruptive element in the enlightened and unquestionable management provided by the Secretary-General:
“Notes that the new organisational chart entered into force on 1 January 2020, introducing important changes such as the creation of a directorate for communication and interinstitutional relations and moving the Legal Service under the Secretary General; is concerned that the reorganisation does not provide the legal service with the independence it requires to work efficiently; asks the Committee to reconsider the reorganisation;
Notes the adoption of Decision No 078/21 of the Committee establishing a procedure for consulting its legal service; is concerned about the weak and imprecise wording stating that the legal service “is informed and/or consulted before measures relating to serious irregularities are adopted” as mere information is not sufficient; reiterates once more its firm call for internal procedures providing for the timely and mandatory consultation with its legal service on those issues with the aim of mitigating the legal risk of such decisions; reminds the Committee that the legal service must be able to assess independently all the decisions taken by the Committee’s management and must be provided with sufficient resources and the requisite prerogatives to perform its tasks successfully in the interest of the Committee;”
V. Our six requests to you
In view of the above, we call on you to ensure that the legitimate demands of the CONT Committee are met, avoiding a new political crisis that the EESC really does not need.
In particular, we ask for your support for:
1) Recognition of victims’ rights
All victims must FINALLY be given due recognition of their rights and in particular the damage suffered in their career development.
Indeed, the objective of the strategy implemented by the Secretary General and his HR Director, with the complicit silence of the President, seems to be to push the victims to the limit of their emotional resistance, by pushing them to accept all solutions and all compromises, if not simply to leave the EESC, dehydrated and sometimes devastated by feelings of degression, injustice and betrayal on the part of an administration from which they were entitled to expect protection.
2) Public apology to the victims by the EESC
As requested on several occasions by the EP, the EESC must formally apologize to victims, what the President obviously still refuses to do.
3) Opening of an external and independent enquiry
As requested by the EP, an “external and independent investigation” must be opened without delay to determine, in particular, “the responsibility of the Committee’s administrative hierarchy; and, where appropriate, apply Article 22 of the Staff Regulations”
It is pointless to point out that it is simply a matter of administrative decency that the EESC’s Secretary General and its HR Director should not be involved in the conduct of this investigation, which must be external and independent, nor in the preparation of the response that the EESC will have to provide to the EP in this regard.
4) Financial responsibilities
As requested by the EP, the full application of article 22 of the Staff Regulations must be ensured and, on the basis of the conclusions of this enquiry, all those responsible for their actions and culpable omissions must also be held financially accountable.
It would by no means be tolerable for the European taxpayer to have to pay the costs of such disastrous management.
5) Consultation of the Legal Service
Ensure that for every decision submitted to the Bureau, it is verified that the Legal Service has been duly consulted and that a copy of the results of this consultation is also systematically obtained.
Once and for all, we must put an end to the tasteless charade whereby the EESC’s Legal Service is almost taken hostage and placed under the control of the Secretary-General. Upstream, its access to information is filtered by the Secretary General, and downstream, its opinions are withheld or denied to the EESC Bureau, Members or the Staff Committee.
6) Review of EESC HR procedures, handling of harassment complaints…
As requested by the EP, there should be an immediate review of “the Committee’s human resources procedures and its effectiveness, with particular emphasis on dealing with harassment complaints and ensuring the well-being of staff”, also taking into account the results of the independent external investigation mentioned under point 1 above.
The time has come for you, as members of the EESC Bureau, to recognise that the “old regime” is dead, in order to prove by clear actions and credible reforms, and not by empty slogans, that the EESC is NOT “the Zombie, which has lost its mission but is still alive” or “a costly uprising of a bygone era”, as described by many outside observers.
Your deafening silence, the absence of any position from you, the image of the EESC Bureau spending its time meekly congratulating the Secretary General for the positive results he announces in each discharge exercise, only to have to take note afterwards of the EP’s bloody criticisms and refusals of discharge, …the same charade being repeated in each discharge exercise, this without the Bureau ever asking the Secretary General to finally account for it…. we are sure that you share our opinion that this cannot go on.
For R&D, there can be no question of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by making the whole institution and its staff pay for unforgettable mistakes of which colleagues are the first victims.
Indeed, we must never forget that it is these mistakes, which have become unforgettable because of the arrogant claim of some to never be accountable to anyone for their actions, that have damaged the reputation of the EESC, playing into the hands of the enemies of the European project and of our civil service.
And certainly not the criticisms made in unison by R&D, OLAF, the European Parliament, the Council of the Union, the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors…
Ms Schweng President of the EESC
Mr Brunetti, Secretary-General of the EESC
Mr Guillard, Director for Human Resources, EESC
Members of the EESC
Ms Metzola, EP President
Ms Hohlmeier, Chair, Vice-President and Members of the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament
Ms García Muñoz, rapporteur-Member for the 2020 EESC discharge
Ms O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
Mr Itälä, Director-General of OLAF
Ms Nicolaie, Director of IDOC Staff of the institutions
2. Article 22 of the Staff regulation: « An official may be required to make good, in whole or in part, any damage suffered by the Union as a result of serious misconduct on his part in the course of or in connection with the performance of his duties. A reasoned decision shall be given by the appointing authority in accordance with the procedure laid down in regard to disciplinary matters. The Court of Justice of the European Union shall have unlimited jurisdiction in disputes arising under this provision ».
3. Directive (EU) 2019/1937 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2019 on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law (OJ L 305, 26.11.2019, p. 17).
4. EESC Decision No 053/16 A of 2 March 2016, Art. 9(1).