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Leaking in the European Commission: Is it in its DNA?

For a paper (SocArXiv preprint version) I am writing in the context of my research on EU leaks, I looked at all disciplinary proceedings against leakers in the European Commission from 2006 to 2015, as documented in the annual reports of the IODC, its internal investigation office.

Here’s the data that I extracted from IODC’s annual reports (uploaded here) that I received through a freedom of information request to the Commission:


EU Commission Leaks 2006-15_ronpatz

The types of cases vary, and several concern information leaked in the context of tender procedures. So not all are the typical political leaks that many of you may have in mind when you hear the term “leak”.

In fact, the first mention of the term “leaking” in the IDOC reports can be found in only 2012, even if we find reference to leaks in Commission meeting reports that are a decade older.

The EU’s staff regulations call the offense of leaking simply “unauthorised disclosure“(Article 17), and in the latest IDOC report, the act of leaking is covered under the headline “failure to comply with rules on confidentiality“, even though in the narrative of the IDOC report “leaking” is used to describe the actions of the four officials that were sanctioned in 2015.

Now, what does leaking involve outside giving away information relevant to tenders? Here some quotes from the different reports when it comes to more political leaks:

  • 2009: ” Providing information obtained in the line of duty to a national news organisation in exchange for payment” (p. 8)
  • 2011: “An official was dismissed and his pension rights reduced to the minimum subsistence level for 20 years […] for having received gifts and other favours of considerable value from various stakeholders in the industrial sector in which he exercised his duties. This same official had regularly provided these entitities, outside of the Commission, with confidential information or information which had not been made public” (p.6)
  • 2015: “An official who leaked an internal draft policy document to an external industry stakeholder and incorporated their comments into the document without consulting his line management was temporarily downgraded” (p.8)

Leaking thus involves the press but, more importantly, lobbyists and interest groups. I’ve discussed these types of leaks in EU politics in this recent academic paper and also in my doctoral thesis. Given how frequent these are, it was surprising how few cases actually seem to be followed up in disciplinary procedures.

When you compare the times that leaks have been discussed during Commission College meetings in the past decade (all relevant minutes available here), one can see that this is a regular topic even at the highest levels – and that there seems to be no immediate connection between political debate about leaks and follow-up sanctions:

EU Commission Leaks IDOC College

The reason that so few leaks are actually sanctions could be what Ryan Heath deducted from my thesis:

” you would need to stop so-called inter-service consultations between departments if you want to stop leaks. That would, if nothing else, have negative effects on policy-making.”

In other words, leaking is in the DNA of the Commission.

I will argue in my paper that leaking it is part of the Commission’s regular bureaucratic politics. Preventing leaks more forcefully would either mean to reduce the number of internal consultations, to undermine relations with the press or stakeholders, or to undermine strategic leaking that those in political position use to influence the outcome of politics in ways that please them. Leaks go against strategic communication control, but they are so common that  complaining about them is only lip service and disciplinary procedures are a rarity.

Past research has shown that leaking often happens from the top, so those on top of the Commission probably have most to fear from a strict anti-leaking policy. But you’ll see the full argument in my final paper once it is published.

In the meantime: Do you have something to tell me about how leaks are prevented in the Commission? Did you observe a change in how leaks are prevented or encouraged inside the Commission in recent years? Get in touch under for any hints. I will also be in Brussels for some time in mid-March, so I’m happy to meet up for further insights!

This article has been updated on 22 February 2017, 22:27, with the data from the Commission meetings. Some editorial changes have also been made.

This article has been updated on 28 February 2017, 14:35 with a link to the preprint version of the paper.

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