Distrust in public organizations and the public servants who work within them threatens to undermine their legitimacy. Accusations of misconduct pose a specific set of challenges in this regard. Organizational leaders who handle allegations poorly may create or exacerbate public disapprobation and further damage the reputation of their organization. Reputation matters because it serves as an important (symbolic) power resource which dictates how effectively organizational leaders can assert their organization’s interests and values within its environment; and because it has a knock-on effect on public trust and legitimacy.

The European Commission (Commission) is the European Union (EU)’s quasi-governmental executive and its administration. Over the years the Commission has been subject to various scandals, the most significant of which took place in 1998–1999. This scandal led to the resignation of the College of Commissioners (College) in March 1999 and opened the way for a large-scale reform of the Commission’s administration. There is no doubt that it did serious reputational damage to the Commission. Since 1999 there have been yet more scandals, but none of such wide-ranging reputational significance. This might imply that the Commission has become effective in managing scandals. This article investigates this contention. It asks: how effectively has the European Commission responded to scandals since 1999?

The article uses a framework analysis. Thus, it first establishes an analytical framework, drawing on the corporate reputation management literature, and then uses it to evaluate two cases of scandal. The cases are two of the best-documented and most high-profile scandals within the EU institutions after 1999. Other scandals in this time period have involved the European Parliament (the Buttiglione scandal in 2004; the cash-for-questions scandal in 2011; and Qatargate in 2022–2023) or other EU institutions (Eurostat in 2003). As well as being centred on the Commission, each selected case has a lobbying dimension, and each involves senior public servants in the College of Commissioners: in one case a serving Commissioner from a small Member State, and in the other a high-status former Commission President. While the two cases date from the 2000s, they take place in different Commission terms (Barroso II and Juncker). The first case, dating from 2012, is a ‘cash-for-influence’ scandal, involving allegations of bribery; the second, which began in 2016, is a ‘revolving doors’ scandal. While no clear pattern emerges across the two cases, the article provides evidence of a mix of good practice and room for improvement in the Commission’s handling of scandals. The article also argues that even in the most bureaucratic of public organizations the management of scandals involves not only rule-following, but also subjective judgements by organizational leaders.

The qualitative data sources used in this research include internal EU documents (reports of the Commission, the European Parliament, OLAF (the EU’s anti-fraud office), and the European Ombudsman in particular). The research also leans heavily on commentary by the key audience for Commission scandals: civil society organizations (CSOs) and the media (see Carpenter 2010, pp. 3–4 on the significance of the ‘audience’ within the reputation literature). This commentary is heavily weighted towards shortcomings in the Commission’s approach, rather than highlighting what it did well. Thus, a lack of evidence of ineffectiveness on the part of the Commission is at times used to support the case for effectiveness.

The article begins by discussing the concept of ‘scandal’ and how it relates in this research to ‘reputation’. This section explains the analytical framework. The second section introduces the Commission’s mandate and the ethics rules that apply to Commissioners and Commission Presidents. The third and fourth sections offer narratives of the two cases with a particular focus on how the Commission responded to the alleged misconduct. A final section provides an analysis of the two cases, based on the framework. The conclusion sums up and draws out some wider implications of the study.

Unpacking scandal and organizational reputation

A scandal can be any allegation against an individual, group or organization that grabs the attention of the media and the public, and which is likely to affect public perceptions. A political scandal involves public actors and has a bearing on public life. While scandals may involve illegality (e.g. corruption) or ethical misconduct, they can also sometimes be manufactured for political ends (Davis 2006, p. 2). Research on scandals, including political scandals, often takes the form of a thick description of specific cases. More theoretically informed studies situate scandals in their social, political and ethical context (e.g. Neckel 2005; Thompson 2000). Neckel (2005), for example, highlights how scandals expose the ‘political and social conditions [… that] usually remain concealed from the public eye, although they are of great significance for political life’ (p. 102).

The first systematic analysis of political scandal was made in John B. Thompson’s (2000) seminal study. Thompson’s interest in scandal lay in the mediatized social transformations that have shaped the modern world and with it, public life. While scandals can be ‘personal tragedies’ or might expose individual cases of misconduct, they are also ‘social struggles which are fought out in the to and fro of claims and counter claims of revelations, allegations and denials’ (Thompson 2000, p. 7). Thompson concludes his study by proposing his own social theory of scandal which acknowledges the reputational damage that scandals can do.

Research that focuses specifically on organizational reputation has boomed since 2010. This finds it origins in the work of Carpenter (2010, pp. 3–4) who defined organizational reputation as ‘a set of symbolic beliefs about an organization embedded in a network of multiple audiences’. One strand of this literature foregrounds reputation management. Maor (2016, p. 80) argues that today’s blame culture makes this a particularly topical concern for modern organizations. Yet the promotion of a good reputation can be challenging (Waeraas and Byrkjeflot 2012). Applied to scandals, we might expect organizations to want to prevent them from happening in the first place. If a scandal does occur, how organizations respond to it becomes significant (Rimkuté 2018, p. 387).

Most of the literature on reputation management in scandals involves research on corporate or nonprofit organizations, with some studies addressing the topic from a public relations or journalism perspective (Doorley and Garcia 2015). Even in these fields, the research is not extensive (Chapman et al. 2022, p. 295; Hargiss and Wat 2010, p. 78; De Maria 2010, p. 66). Bachmann et al. (2015) point to the importance of repairing trust by making apologies and engaging in rebuilding strategies. Failure to repair trust can potentially make scandals worse, leading to a ‘double crisis’ (Grebe 2013; see also Thompson 2000, p. 24, on ‘second order transgressions’). Chapman et al. (2022) emphasize the significance of good communication and accepting the need for an investigation. Men (2014) focuses on transparency, with a particular eye to internal organizational reactions to scandals. De Maria (2010) constructs a typology of responses: positive, grudging, and negative. Sims (2009, p. 456) identifies different forms of organizational response including protracted denials, avoiding detection, reluctantly accepting criticism, and punishing concerned parties. Benoit (1995, pp. 79–82) sees organizations as either evading or accepting responsibility and in some cases even requesting forgiveness. Pfarrer et al. (2008) chart four response stages: discovery, explanation, penance, and rehabilitation.

Drawing from this body of work, this article identifies five indicators (speed of response; openness of response; application of relevant rules; tone of response; and willingness to reform (see Table 1)) that can be used to evaluate qualitatively the effectiveness of organizational responses to scandal.

Table 1 Indicators of effective reputation management in scandals

Organizational effectiveness in this context is defined functionally as the achievement of organizational goals (Price 1972, p. 2). The organization is categorized as: (1) effective; (2); not effective; or (3) partially effective, depending on how well it can mitigate the reputational damage done by a scandal: that is, the quality of its reputation management. The judgement as to which category is most appropriate when applied to the cases below is a qualitative, interpretive process, resting on an analysis of media and civil society organization (CSO) commentary. In other words what matters is how the organization’s response is perceived within that commentary (Benoit 1995, p. 123). Thus, Indicator 1 is whether and to what extent the organization is judged quick to respond to the scandal (Doorley and Garcia 2000, pp. 311–314). If the media and CSOs judge the organization slow to respond to the alleged misconduct, this will have a negative effect on reputation (not effective). If there is no such judgement on the part of the media and CSOs, the organization will be judged quick to respond, and the response will be positive (effective). Indicator 2 concerns the perceived extent of openness exhibited by the organization (Thompson 2000, pp. 266–267; Bachmann et al. 2015, p. 1133), based on media and CSO judgements. If the organization is deemed to be secretive about the alleged misconduct, this will have a negative effect on its reputation (not effective). If the organization is not judged by the media or CSOs to be secretive, it is deemed open, and the response will be positive (effective). Indicator 3 concerns how ethics rules are interpreted (Grebe 2013; Warren 2007). If the organization is judged by the media and CSOs to be using the rules to allow the organization to avoid taking responsibility, this will have a negative effect on its reputation (not effective). If the organization is deemed to have applied the rules or no such criticism of the organization has been made, this will have a positive effect (effective). Indicator 4 concerns how the organization deals with criticism of its response to the scandal (Grebe 2013; Sisco 2012; Warren 2007, p. 482; Benoit 1995). If the organization responds defensively to criticism or denies wrongdoing, it will have a negative effect on its reputation (not effective). If the organization is constructive in its response, it will have a positive effect (effective). Indicator 5 concerns how the organization responds to criticism of the institutional framework (rules) governing misconduct (Chapman et al. 2022, p. 295; Sims 2009, p. 456). If the organization is judged in the media to fail to acknowledge the need for organizational reform or for an investigation, it will have a negative effect on its reputation (not effective). If it acknowledges the need for reform or an investigation, it is likely to have a positive effect (effective). For all indicators a ‘partially effective’ response is where the media and CSOs witness a mix of positive and negative responses or where criticism of the organization is muted or limited.

Regulating the conduct of members of the Commission

Within the EU’s supranational inter-institutional system of governance, the Commission is both quasi-governmental executive and civil service. It comprises a political head, the College of Commissioners, and an administrative body comprising the Commission services and fulfils various roles including that of agenda-setter, honest broker, policy manager and external representative (Nugent and Rhinard 2015, pp. 15–20). These roles reflect the formal accountability of the Commission to the European Parliament and the EU Council, the Commission’s multiple sources of authority (including European stakeholders and the general public) and its ‘high audience heterogeneity’ (van der Veer 2021). In part because of the spread of functions it performs, the Commission has at times struggled to defend its position as a legitimate decision-making authority (see Tsakatika 2005). Public trust in the Commission remains relatively low (European Commission 2021, p. 109); and while the Commission’s legitimacy has traditionally rested on its policy delivery (that is, based on output legitimacy), the Commission has—since at least the early 1990s—accepted that it is also judged in terms of its democratic credentials (input legitimacy) and the quality of its decision-making (throughput legitimacy) (Schmidt 2013).

The Commission provides a fertile ground for the analysis of scandal. It was subject to an extremely damaging scandal in 1998–1999 which led to the resignation of the College of Commissioners (Macmullen 1999). This scandal was the product of a deterioration in relations between the Commission and the European Parliament, and—more specifically—allegations of fraud against the Community budget, which implicated Members of the European Commission (including the then Commission President, Jacques Santer). The scandal paved the way for a large-scale administrative reform, comprising an overhaul of financial management and human resources systems (Kassim 2008). Also put in place were initiatives to promote high standards of public ethics and integrity (Cini 2004) and to minimize the deleterious effects of future scandals.

Ethics guidance directed at Commissioners comprised one element of these new initiatives. These rules were based on Article 17 TEU and Article 245 TEU which set out the basic obligations of the Commission and its members. Art. 17(3) states that Members of the Commission ‘shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties or the performance of their tasks’ while Art. 17(6) makes it clear that ‘A member of the Commission shall resign if the President so requests’. On appointment Members of the Commission take an oath that they will comply with the Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and will exercise their responsibilities in full independence and in the general interest of the Union (European Commission 2020).

More detailed guidance is spelt out in the Code of Conduct for Commissioners, most recently in its 2018 version. The Code covers a range of issues tied to the notion of ‘standards in public life’ including guidance on gifts, hospitality, financial interests (including a Declaration to be completed), business travel, involvement in political activity, employment of family members, and post-employment obligations. The latter sets a so-called ‘cooling-off period’ of 18 months for Commissioners between their departure from the Commission and their acceptance of a position in a similar field (European Commission 2011).

The Code places the Commission President and Commissioners at the heart of what is primarily a self-regulatory system. (Commission officials, by contrast, are subject to more formal rules). The President is advised by small semi-independent advisory body, the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee (AHEC), whose members are appointed by the Commission. Where the EU’s financial interests are involved, cases will be investigated by the EU anti-fraud office (OLAF), which is based within the Commission but has operational independence. The European Ombudsman (EO) might also become involved, especially where complaints are made by civil society organizations or by interested individuals. The EO is entirely independent of the Commission. At the time of writing, in late 2023, the Commission is directing efforts to establish an inter-institutional ethics body, which would set ethics standards across the EU institutions.

Cash-for-influence: the case of Commissioner Dalli

In 2009–2010, the Commission began work on a revision to the 2001 Tobacco Products Directive (European Commission 2012a). The proposed legislation was subject to intense lobbying (Peeters et al., 2016). The Commissioner for health and consumer policy, John Dalli, much to the delight of the anti-smoking lobby, stressed that the legislation would be ‘severe’ (Autret 2012; European Commission 2012b). One of several controversial issues concerned snus, a smokeless form of chewing tobacco which was banned from sale outside Sweden. It was this ban that one company, Swedish Match, was keen to overturn.

In autumn 2012 a Commission cash-for-influence scandal hit the headlines (Sacriste 2014). The allegation was that a friend and associate of Mr Dalli in his home state of Malta, a businessman named Silvio Zammit, had asked ESTOC, the European Smokeless Tobacco Council, and Swedish Match for a payment of €60 million and, on a separate occasion, €10 million, to facilitate access to the Commissioner so that they might influence the forthcoming legislation (OLAF 2012). The case hinged on Zammit’s alleged attempt to solicit a bribe, and the extent to which Commissioner Dalli knew about it.

In May 2012, more than two months after the alleged meetings, Swedish Match reported the incident to the Commission’s Secretary-General, Catherine Day. After consulting the Commission’s Legal Service, the file was passed to OLAF. OLAF quickly opened an investigation and proceeded to interview witnesses and persons of interest, request documents, search offices, and gather telephone data (OLAF 2012). Within less than five months, the report was completed, and on 15 October 2012, it was received by the Commission (and Council). Dalli was called in the next day to see the Commission President, after which he [Dalli] resigned.

Within days the media was reporting the case as ‘among the worst scandals to hit the commission since its members resigned en masse in 1999…’ (Chaffin 2012a). The media attention was intense. The limited information available provoked speculation which at times bordered on conspiracy theory. The Commission and OLAF were subject to criticism by CSOs, such as ALTER-EU and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), for their lack of transparency. CSOs submitted freedom of information requests and made complaints to the EO (CEO 2013; ALTER-EU 2012; EO 2014). In April 2013, the OLAF Report, which had not been made public, was leaked to a Maltese media organization (Vella 2013).

The OLAF report contended that while there was no ‘smoking gun’ providing hard evidence of Dalli’s direct involvement or knowledge of the bribe, there were ‘a number of ambiguous and converging circumstantial pieces of evidence’ (OLAF 2012, p. 40; Kessler as cited in Chaffin 2012b) indicating that the Commissioner was aware that the businessman had asked for money. ‘He [Dalli] was aware of this and he did not do anything to prevent, stop or report this’ (OLAF 2012; Kessler as cited in Chaffin 2012a). The Report talked of ‘ill-timed phone calls and secret meetings’, as well as incriminating hand-written notes by Zammit referencing meetings about snus with the Commissioner (OLAF 2012). In sum, OLAF found that Dalli may have violated the code of conduct for European Commissioners (European Commission, 2011) and had put ‘at risk the image and reputation of the European Commission’ (OLAF 2012, p. 40; Panichi 2015). Dalli was criticized for holding private meetings with lobbyists without the ‘knowledge or involvement of the competent Commission Services’ (OLAF 2012; Bos 2015).

The Commission president initially tried to deal with the matter internally, expediting Dalli’s departure from the Commission with the minimum of fuss. According to the head of the Commission President’s private office, Johannes Laitenberger, Barroso acted quickly (Hirst 2015). He claimed that in the resignation meeting on 16 October he had hoped that Dalli might provide evidence to exonerate himself. According to Barroso, Dalli’s behaviour was deemed ‘not in keeping with the proper conduct of a commissioner’ (Hirst 2015). ‘This is not a question of labour law… [but] about confidence in the honour of a very important political office’ (Hirst 2015). It was not a matter of whether Dalli was guilty or innocent in a formal sense, but whether he had brought the Commission into disrepute. Whether proven or not, Dalli had become a political liability (Hirst 2015). The case was compared to the 1999 resignation. The Commission also feared that this matter would distract attention from the euro crisis and the EU budget process (Chaffin 2012a).

Despite his resignation Dalli refused to accept his departure from the Commission and his vilification in the media. He orchestrated a public campaign and initiated several court cases to protest his innocence and to try to redress his grievances against the Commission, OLAF and Swedish Match (Chaffin 2012a). He challenged the Commission and OLAF’s version of events, both over his departure from office, which he claimed was a ‘pre-planned “lynching”’ (Hirst 2015), and over the events leading up to it.

The quality of the OLAF Report and investigation were also criticized. Ingeborg Grässle, as chair of the European Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee, was scathing over inconsistencies and unevidenced interpretations in the Report (Callahan and Johnson 2014). OLAF’s supervisory committee (SC) also produced an extremely critical opinion on the process (OLAF SC 2012). It accused OLAF and its Director-General, Giovanni Kessler, of acting outside the law, including by organizing the illegal recording of telephone conversations (OLAF SC 2012; Aries and Panichi 2016). The Commission would later, in March 2016, respond to these allegations by withdrawing Kessler’s immunity from prosecution, allowing the Belgian authorities to investigate the allegations.

Dalli claimed that the accusations were part of a conspiracy by the Commission and the tobacco companies to water down the tobacco legislation (Chaffin 2012a, b). He also claimed that Barroso had forced him to resign using Article 17(6) TEU as grounds (General Court 2015). Dalli said he had asked for 24 h to think through what action to take but was only given 30 min (Chaffin 2012a). This was a claim that the Commission did not accept. A couple of months after his resignation Dalli brought a case to the EU’s General Court which he lost (General Court 2015), also later losing an appeal in the Court of Justice (Court of Justice 2016). The Court decided that while Barroso had said that he would use Article 17(6) TEU, he had offered resignation as an honourable alternative, and Dalli had chosen to accept. John Dalli continues to assert his innocence.

Revolving doors: the case of former Commission President Barroso

The second case involves the ‘revolving doors’ phenomenon, that is, the movement of staff between the public sector and corporate or lobbying jobs. In July 2016, twenty months after leaving office, the former Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, accepted employment as a non-executive chairman of investment bank, Goldman Sachs International (Goldman Sachs 2016). The announcement was made only two weeks after the UK Brexit Referendum. Although the Commission’s 18-month ‘cooling-off’ period for Commissioners (European Commission, 2011) had expired, CSOs and journalists reacted critically to the Goldman Sachs announcement (AHEC 2016, p. 4). The primary concern was that Barroso’s new role was not appropriate because of the central role he had taken while President in forming the EU’s response to the financial crisis (Noonan 2016). There were also concerns raised because of Goldman Sachs’ involvement in the subprime mortgage crisis and its reputation for aggressive lobbying (AHEC 2016, p. 4). As the Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, later put it: ‘The fact that Barroso works for a bank doesn’t bother me… But the fact that it’s that one causes me a problem’ (Juncker 2016a).

EU officials launched a petition on the online platform, demanding that Barroso’s pension be suspended ( 2016). The petition collected over 150,000 signatures. It noted that the appointment had come ‘at the worst possible moment, a disastrous symbol for the Union and a gift horse for the Europhobes…’ (quoted in Noonan 2016). CSOs, led by campaigning umbrella group, ALTER-EU, followed suit by initiating their own petition (WeMoveEurope 2016), garnering almost 30,000 signatures. They wrote to the Commission (ALTER-EU 2016) and made a complaint to the EO (ALTER-EU 2017). Meanwhile, the Commission was inundated with questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) about the case and its wider implications (for example, EP 2016a, b, c). Even the French President, François Hollande, described Barroso’s decision as ‘legally possible but morally unacceptable’ (Hollande, as cited in Brunsden 2016).

Initially, the Commission President seemed reluctant to get involved, stating that the Commission could not do anything because the 18-month ‘cooling-off’ period had passed and that there was no legal base for cutting Barroso’s pension (Noonan 2016). Indeed, it was only after two months, in September 2016 that, in response to criticism from the EO (EO 2016a), he referred the case to the Ad Hoc Ethical Committee (AHEC). Meanwhile, Juncker asked Barroso to ‘clarify the scope of [his] … new responsibilities […] and the relevant terms of reference of [his] … contract’ (European Commission 2016). Juncker removed the former President’s ‘red-carpet privileges’ and VIP treatment in Brussels (Beesley 2016), a decision that led Barroso to label Juncker’s intervention as discriminatory (Barroso 2016).

By the end of October 2016, the AHEC had cleared Barroso of violating conduct rules, taking it on trust that he would not lobby for Goldman Sachs (AHEC 2016, p. 8). It nevertheless criticized his actions, stating that ‘he has not shown the considerate judgement one may expect from someone having held the high office he occupied for so many years’ (AHEC 2016, p. 8). The AHEC report also confirmed that the scandal had caused reputational damage to the Commission and the Union (AHEC 2016, p. 5), but that there was ‘not sufficient ground to establish a violation of the duty of integrity and discretion’ under Article 245 TFEU (AHEC 2016, p. 8). In view of the AHEC findings the Commission took no further action, and the matter was not discussed within the College of Commissioners, a feature of the case that was later criticized by the EO. Juncker went on to announce in his State of the Union speech in September 2016 that he would revise the Commissioners’ Code of Conduct (Juncker 2016b).

By that stage the EO had already expressed doubts over the quality of the AHEC’s investigation, which—she argued—has been based only on a cursory review of three documents (EO 2016b; see also AHEC 2016). The analysis was also condemned by legal experts who argued that the AHEC had adopted a very narrow interpretation of its role, over-emphasizing the 18-month cooling offer period without acknowledging its wider responsibility to interpret Article 245 which had no time-limit (Paskalev et al. 2016). In response to three sets of complaints, by the EU officials, two legal experts, and the campaigning organization ALTER-EU, the EO launched a more in-depth year-long investigation. In line with her remit, however, the investigation concerned the Commission’s handling of this and other similar cases and the role of the AHEC, rather than whether Barroso was in breach of the rules.

The EO inquiry reported in March 2018 (EO 2018a). Approximately one month earlier, pre-empting the EO report, the Commission had approved a new Code of Conduct (European Commission 2018). While the EO welcomed the new Code, her Report was still critical of the Commission. She wrote to the Commission stating that the case called into question whether the rules were fit for purpose, stating that Barroso’s appointment had been a cause of ‘public disquiet’ among European citizens (EO 2018a, p. 9). She criticized the Commission for failing to take a formal decision which could have imposed a lobbying ban on Barroso because it saw his personal promise to refrain as sufficient (EO 2018a, p. 11, p. 14). She also called for the issue to be referred back to the AHEC as a way for the Commission to demonstrate that it was taking ‘revolving doors’ issues seriously (EO 2018a, p. 14).

Barroso reiterated his defence when the Ombudsman’s report was released (EO 2018b). He reminded the EP that ‘[t]he Independent Ad Hoc Ethical Committee reviewed my professional appointment well over a year ago and did not find that it involved any breach of my duties’ (Barroso, as cited in Barker 2018). Responding earlier to a draft of the report Barroso had said ‘There are numerous other issues with the recommendations which, in my view, constitute a thinly veiled ad personam political attack […] [I]t is a bitter irony that you have sought to use your office in this way’ (EO 2018b).

The effectiveness of the Commission in responding to scandal

How effectively did the Commission respond to these two scandals? This section returns to the analytical framework, using it to evaluate the two cases (see Table 2).

Table 2 The effectiveness of scandal responses

Indicator 1 (speed of response) highlighted the importance of a quick response to the scandal. In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, the Commission (Secretary-General) acted swiftly in referring the complaint by Swedish Match to OLAF, as was legally required. OLAF also conducted the investigation very quickly. At that point President Barroso also responded very quickly by, only a day after receiving the OLAF Report, calling Commissioner Dalli into his office. At that meeting, Dalli was offered the option of resigning on the spot, which he did, but which he later regretted. There was no evidence of any delay. This response is therefore categorized as effective. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, by contrast, Commission President Juncker was criticized for his slow response as the scandal broke in the media. Although later critical of Barroso, Juncker seemed reluctant to react, arguing that his hands were tied. This only changed when the European Ombudsman became involved. Thus, the response is categorized as not effective.

Second, the Commission’s openness during the scandal also has a bearing on the effectiveness of the organization’s response. In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, the accusations of ethical misconduct remained confidential until the OLAF Report had been delivered to the Commission President. This was a legal requirement. But even at that point, the OLAF Report was not released to the public, and only entered the public domain when it was leaked to the Maltese press. The way the information became accessible suggested that the Commission or OLAF had something to hide. The manner of Dalli’s resignation also led to a wave of speculation; and it directed CSO and media attention to problems with the quality of the Report, signalled later by OLAF’s own Supervisory Committee. This response is therefore deemed not effective. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, even the Commission was blind-sided by the Goldman Sachs press release. But while the Commission initially did try to deal with the matter behind-closed-doors in a low-key way, but there was no attempt to keep the case hidden. Lack of transparency was not in evidence. This response is deemed effective.

The third indicator equates rule-following by the Commission with effective reputation-management. In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, the type of accusation made meant that the Commission was right to forward the case directly to OLAF. Even though the OLAF investigation was inconclusive, Dalli was still placed in a position where he was expected to resign. This shows the Commission President taking a tough line, though one that might not have been fair on the individual concerned. Dalli felt that he had been removed from post despite the absence of clearcut evidence that he had breached the rules. This response is deemed partially effective. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, the Commission interpreted the Code of Conduct for Commissioners in a manner that strongly emphasized the 18-month cooling off period, rather than the more general treaty requirements found in Article 17 TEU and Article 245 TFEU, the provisions that underpin the Code (Paskalev et al. 2016). The Commission did not refer the case to the AHEC as the case was deemed to be clear-cut and uncontroversial (legally at least). It was only after the EO pushed it to do so that the AHEC was asked to rule. The interpretation that the Commission placed on that specific provision of the Code was similar to that followed by the AHEC, which explains why—though criticizing the former Commissioner—the AHEC failed to find any breach of the rules, exonerating the former Commission President. Following the AHEC recommendation, the Commission President chose not to take a formal decision or raise the issue in the College of Commissioners’ meeting. Although responding—eventually—to the EO, the Commission agreed to strip the former President of his VIP entitlements, though this decision was never formalized. This response is therefore categorized as not effective.

The fourth indicator, the tone of response, concerns how the Commission dealt with criticism of its conduct during the scandal. Did the Commission become defensive and hostile, or did it respond by accepting the significance of the misconduct? In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, there is no evidence of the Commission acting in an especially defensive manner. Indeed, a Chaffin (2012b) remarks, the Commission president sought to ‘remain above the fray’ in the early stages of the scandal. The response is labelled effective. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, despite the criticism thrown at the Commission, in the first instance for acting slowly, and for failing to refer the matter to the AHEC, for failing to do anything with the AHEC Report once it had been published, there is no evidence that the Commission responded especially defensively or with hostility to these criticisms. Therefore, this response is categorized as effective.

Fifth, and finally, an effective scandal response is likely to involve an openness to reform. In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, there was no immediate response from the Commission in terms of reform proposals. However, reference to OLAF’s failings in this case, particularly as concerns the Director’s conduct during the investigation, was mentioned in calls for the reform of the OLAF Regulation, which was finally agreed in 2021. Indeed, OLAF itself views this reform as in part down to the experience of this case (OLAF 2017). This response is therefore deemed effective. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, criticism by the EO was such that President Juncker announced in his 2016 State of the Union speech that he would revise the 2011 Code of Conduct for Commissioners. While this was welcomed by the EO at the time, the revised version did not appear until February 2018, just before the EO was to launch her own Report. This suggested that this revision had not been a priority once the pressure was off the Commission. The timing of the revision of the new Code pre-empted the release of the Ombudsman’s Report. This meant that the latter included certain recommendations that were already reflected in the new version of the Code, though it also contained proposals that were not included. This response is therefore deemed partially effective.

In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, we therefore see two categories identified as ‘effective’, and two as ‘partially effective’ and two as ‘not-effective’. In the ‘revolving doors’ case, we see two categories identified as ‘effective’, one as ‘partially effective’ and three as ‘not effective. Whilst the number of effective, partially effective and not effective categories are similar, there is no clear pattern across the two cases.

What we can witness across the two cases is that decision-making during scandals is governed not only by rule-following, but also by the subjective judgements of Commission leaders. As noted earlier in the article, the ethical framework for members of the Commission, though grounded in the Treaty, is largely composed of soft law (the Code of Conduct). While the latter includes some detailed stipulations as to how Commissioners and Commission Presidents should conduct themselves, thereby shaping the decisions of organizational leaders, it also leaves room for the exercise of discretion. For example, in the cash-for-influence case, President Barroso rushed Commissioner Dalli into a resignation very quickly after the scandal broke so as to limit the damage inflicted on the Commission. In the revolving doors case, by contrast, President Juncker suffered two months of bad press before deciding to refer former President Barroso to the AHEC. In each case, Commission leaders made it clear that while what is legally permissible offers a framework for their response to scandal, decisions are also determined by what is felt to be politically desirable (see also Spiegel 2013).


This research set out to investigate the effectiveness of the European Commission’s response to recent scandals. Drawing largely on the literature on corporate reputation management, the article developed an analytical framework based on five indicators: speed of response; openness of response; the application of relevant rules; the tone of response; and willingness to reform. This framework was then used to evaluate two post-1999 scandals in the Commission: namely, a cash-for-influence case involving a Commissioner from a small Member State; and a revolving doors case centred around the actions of a former high-profile Commission President.

In the ‘cash-for-influence’ case, the Commission was shown to be effective in its speed and tone of its response. It was not effective in its openness. And it was only partially effective in the application of existing rules and in its willingness to reform. Meanwhile, in the ‘revolving doors’ case, the Commission was only effective in its openness and the tone of response. It was not effective in its speed of response, nor in its application of relevant rules. It was only partially effective in its willingness to reform. We can see from this summary of findings that while no clear pattern emerges across the two cases, the article provides evidence of a mix of good practice and room for improvement in the Commission’s handling of both scandals.

This article also lends itself to broader conclusions about the management of scandals. It casts light on the effect that individuals have when scandals occur and, more specifically, on the interplay of individual decision-making and the application of rules and guidelines, particularly in times of organizational stress. This observation also suggests why organizations generally and the Commission in particular might find it difficult to engage in effective reputation management. Scandals rarely follow a well-trodden path. Each is different, involving different sets of rules and actors. While the Commission is a highly bureaucratic entity with procedures and policy routines, the relevant rules that apply to the President and the Members of the Commission—in contrast to Commission officials—are a mix of what might be termed hard and soft law. The latter (for example, the Commissioners’ Code of Conduct) establishes expectations of good behaviour on the part of senior public servants, but it also allows the President some discretion. Regular Members of the Commission, especially those from small Member States, have much less freedom of manoeuvre, however, unless their President is supportive. At the same time individual decisions taken on the basis of this discretion are open to contestation by civil society actors, journalists and, even, the individuals accused of misconduct, making scandal responses inherently controversial. It is possible to conclude that even in the most bureaucratic of public organizations, responding to scandal involves not only rule-following, but also subjective judgements by organizational leaders. These subjective judgements are a function of the discretion that results from the loose soft law framework that governs Commissioner/Commission President ethics. It allows a political logic to be factored into the decision-making of organizational leaders alongside a more formal, legal logic that is also present whenever the Commission has to respond to scandal.

To date, research on the European Commission has engaged with the theme of organizational reputation, while a wider literature on corporate reputation management has raised some interesting insights into how organizations (mainly in the private sector) have responded when in the midst of a scandal. This article brings these two literatures together to question the effectiveness of reputation management (that is, responses to scandal) in a public organization, the European Commission. Its contribution has been twofold: it has developed a new analytical framework on reputation management, which can be applied to—or further developed for use in—new cases within and beyond the EU institutions. Second, the article sheds light on an under-researched aspect of the European Commission. While researchers devoted attention to the 1998–99 Commission resignation and have also begun to study the EU institutions from a public ethics perspective, there is relatively little academic literature on more minor EU scandals, nor on the intersection of EU scandals and organizational reputation. This article therefore opens a new avenue for research which might encompass themes such as the role of organizational leadership, the impact of scandal on public opinion, internal institutional effects, and the rebuilding (or repair) of organizational reputation, post-scandal.