The EU’s ombudsman asked the European Commission on Tuesday (November 14th) to provide guarantees of independence for experts evaluating industry proposals for the European Defense Fund, another blow to EU transparency in defense industry policy.
“The European Ombudsman has opened an investigation into how the European Commission ensures that external experts helping it evaluate European Defense Fund (EDF) project proposals do not have a conflict of interest,” the Ombudsman said in press release.
EDF is a A fund of 8 million euros aimed at encouraging collaborative research and development of defense-related equipment and technologies between 2021 and 2027.
Companies’ applications for projects and grants in a competitive bidding process are analyzed by experts as part of the selection process.
Independent experts “assist in evaluation and ethical review of proposals”, Commission it says.
However, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly says there is no clear evidence that these experts are truly independent, as the Commission relies on its own declarations that there will be no conflict of interest.
This is the third time the ombudsman has raised this concern since the first EU defense innovation programs began.
The move comes as some critics in EU member states have pointed out unfair selection in the awarding of projects, as was the case when French missile maker MBDA awarded development of a hypersonic missile interceptor as a consolation prize with no competition after the surpass by the smaller Spanish SENER.
Others, in line with the European Network Against Arms Trafficking (ENAAT), have also criticized the lack of transparency of ethical compliance reviews by experts, whose analyzes are not public.
There is no official rating
“The commission (…) has indicated that it relies heavily on the self-statements of experts in order to prevent potential conflicts of interest,” writes the ombudsman.
The Commission has therefore been sent a series of questions covering a wide range of issues to analyze the recruitment process of experts in the EU executive, to be answered by 31 January 2024.
The Commission will have to answer “how (its) staff evaluates and verifies expert self-declarations, how often conflicts of interest are identified, whether the Commission has guidelines on when experts can be retained despite potential conflicts of interest, and how the Commission deals with warnings of conflicts of interest.” interest from external sources.”
The European Network Against Arms Trafficking (ENAAT) told Euractiv: “At first glance, the selection criteria greatly limit the eligible candidates to help the Commission implement the EDF to those who have had a career in the military, public or private”. This “makes it difficult for independent experts, such as university researchers who have no connection to industry, to apply”.
Euractiv understands that the Commission’s recruitment process does not formally exclude consultants who may also work indirectly for defense companies or national defense ministries.
However, the names of the experts are not public, says the Ombudsman.
“Contrary to the general practice for the evaluation of proposals that should receive EU funds, the Commission is not obliged to publish the names of the experts it consults for projects supported by the EDF,” the Ombudsman’s office wrote.
A European Commission spokesman said they had received the ombudsman’s request for information and would “cooperate fully with the ombudsman’s investigation on its own initiative”, adding that the Commission’s responses would be made public.
Unwillingness of member states
In 2018, the Ombudsman demanded greater transparency on an advisory body composed of “experts” who influence the development of the EU’s common security and defense policy (CSDP).
They too identified lack of transparency in the Commission’s assessment of compliance of proposed defense technology projects with international law and human rights within the framework of the EDF pilot project.
The issue of transparency in defense matters is tricky because of the sensitivity of the information. Too much transparency worries the Member States and the Commission.
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton’s proposal for member states and industries to share sensitive information about their production capacities and value chains was rejected and postponed to a later stage, when An act to support the production of ammunition (ASAP) to increase production for Ukraine.
DG DEFIS, in charge of defense industry issues, also faces problems in protecting sensitive information, French online media reported Letters A reported last week.
(Edited by Nathalie Weatherald)