EU body mulls new harassment sanctions after bullying complaints

A European institution that brings together employers and workers proposed new ways to hold members accountable for harassment after bullying complaints against a senior member highlighted difficulties in enforcing the rules.

The president of the European Economic and Social Committee, Luca Jahier, presented the measures last week to the bureau, a group of members meant to organize and coordinate the committee’s work, to try to beef up the code of conduct.

POLITICO reported earlier this month that several members of staff have accused Jacek Krawczyk, a committee member and president of one of the organization’s three groups, of psychologically harassing them, but the committee’s current code of conduct doesn’t include the possibility of investigating or sanctioning members — who are appointed by their home countries and aren’t officially EU staff. Krawczyk denies harassing or bullying staff.

The president’s proposal, obtained by POLITICO, lays out ways to try to prevent harassment and outlines a process for handling complaints as well as potential disciplinary measures for members found guilty of harassment. It is not finalized and will be voted on by the bureau in January.

Under the proposal, an internal committee would investigate formal complaints of harassment and recommend whether action should be taken in a subsequent report.

Four potential disciplinary measures are also included: a written warning; including the written warning in a bureau or plenary meeting; temporarily suspending a member from participating in a “study group” that examines a particular issue; and temporarily revoking the member’s responsibility for writing a report on behalf of the committee.

The EESC, which consults on legislation that passes from the Commission to the Parliament and represents the interests of EU workers, employers and other groups, is in a bind when it comes to punishing offenders. Since members are appointed by their home countries, they aren’t staff whom the committee hires and pays. It cannot fire them, and since it doesn’t pay them, it can’t suspend their wages.

Some argue the proposed new measures won’t be enough to solve the problem: Suspending a member from a study group wouldn’t prevent them from participating in larger issue meetings and voting in plenary sessions. Also, because not all members write reports, this would affect a limited number of people.

“We want something credible, and what they are proposing doesn’t seem to be enough,” said Cristiano Sebastiani, president of the R&D trade union for EU institution staff, which has called on the EESC multiple times to do more to protect its employees from harassment.

“I get the feeling that [the EESC] felt the need to do something, because to do nothing is no longer acceptable,” said Sebastiani. “But they are not doing enough.”

The issue of harassment was highlighted in a report published this week by the EU’s watchdog, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, on anti-harassment policies in EU institutions and agencies.

O’Reilly said more action is needed to combat harassment in EU institutions “in line with the legitimate expectations of a post #MeToo society.”

“Individuals are particularly vulnerable to harassment in situations where there is a significant power imbalance between the parties involved,” the report said. “There is therefore arguably a need for consideration to be given to more demanding rules for high ranking personnel, such as … members of the European Economic and Social Committee.”

The ombudsman report said that best practices in the institutions for this personnel “include aggravated disciplinary measures such as compulsory retirement or being denied the right to a pension when a high-ranking member of the institution has committed harassment.”

Alicja Herbowska, head of cabinet for EESC President Jahier, said in an email that neither of these penalties are possible within the EESC, the first because the committee does not issue salaries and pensions, and the second because compulsory retirement is “not possible according to existing provisions.”

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly | Laurent Dubrule/EPA

“The sanctions need to be adapted to the reality of each institution,” Herbowska wrote.

In a plenary session last week, Jahier said the bureau’s “initial and significant discussion” on amending the code of conduct was a sign that the EESC “has serious rules and procedures that it applies with rigor and resolve.”

“Even where we have found shortcomings we have got moving immediately,” he said.

Bureau members will discuss any changes to the proposal and vote on its adoption in its next meeting on January 22, Herbowska said. It will then be sent to the committee’s plenary for approval.


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