EU ombudsman calls for review of Barroso’s Goldman Sachs role

Emily O’Reilly criticises alleged lobbying by former commission president for US bank

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission at a press conference in Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission at a press conference in Government Buildings. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The European Commission has come under renewed fire for mishandling the ethical issues raised by the move of José Manuel Barroso, its former president, to Goldman Sachs.

The rebuke from the European Ombudsman, an EU watchdog, calls for a formal reassessment of whether his position at the investment bank is “compatible” with the “integrity and discretion” legally required of former officials.

Emily O’Reilly, who led the year-long investigation into potential maladministration, criticised the commission for not imposing a formal lobbying ban on Mr Barroso because it saw his personal promise to refrain as sufficient.

She said the commitment given by Mr Barroso to that committee that he would not lobby the commission had been put in doubt by a meeting, which took place between Mr Barroso and commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen last October.

The meeting was registered as a meeting with the Goldman Sachs Bank and therefore had the appearances of a meeting for the purposes of lobbying, Ms O’Reilly said in a statement.

The intervention is the latest twist in the controversy over Mr Barroso’s move to Goldman – dubbed L’Affaire Barroso – which drew criticism from MEPs, the former French president and a 150,000-strong online petition.

In 2016, the former Portuguese premier was cleared by the ethics committee of violating conduct rules when moving to Goldman, but its report nevertheless criticised him for a lapse of judgment in taking the post.

His Goldman role hit the headlines again last month after Mr Katainen confirmed meeting Mr Barroso last year to discuss trade and defence issues.

In her report Ms O’Reilly said: “Whatever the precise nature and content of the meeting with the former commission president, there are understandable concerns about this incident, specifically that the former commission president is using his previous status and his contacts with former colleagues, to open doors, to influence, and to obtain information.”

Safeguards

Such concerns would not have arisen, Ms O’Reilly argued, had the commission taken a formal decision to “impose the necessary safeguards to prevent such lobbying”.

Mr Barroso hit back at the claims in a submission to the investigation. “There are numerous other issues with the recommendations which, in my view, constitute a thinly veiled ad personal political attack,” he said in a letter to Ms O’Reilly that related to an early draft of the recommendations. “It is a bitter irony that you have sought to use your office in this way.”

“For my part, I stand by the assurances I have given to the commission,” he said. “I have not and will not engage in any lobbying activity with the European institutions on behalf of Goldman Sachs.”

Ms O’Reilly called for the issue to be brought back to the commission ethics panel.

“Putting the matter to the ethics committee once more would demonstrate that the commission has taken very seriously public concern over this affair and the damage done to the image of the EU institutions – despite the hard work and ethical behaviour of the vast majority of people who work in them,” she said on Thursday.

The ombudsman has asked that the commission consider requiring that its former president abstain from lobbying the commission for a further number of years.

Mr Barroso tweeted in response: “The European Ombudsman’s recommendations published today do not involve any legal assessment of my duties as she has confirmed in a letter to me made available on her website.”

Ms O’Reilly’s main recommendations are directed at improving “systemic issues” with the commission’s ethics board, saying reforms introduced earlier this year did not go far enough to “prevent a Barroso-like situation arising in the future”.

She suggests extending the period during which former commissioners must notify taking new positions, and an overhaul of the ethics committee to give it more independence. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018