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The Barroso affair resurfaces. The European ombudsman slams the Commission for lack of ethics

Between the former president of the European Commission JM Barroso and the mediator O'Reilly, as an ethical problem (credit: European Commission2013 / Archives B2).

(B2) The European Union Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, has put her two cents into the Barroso affair. In recommendation published on March 15, it recommended that the Commission's ethics committee re-examine " the question of professional activity of the former President of the Commission, Mr Barroso, within the Goldman Sachs bank, "in order to verify its compatibility with the obligations established by the Treaty". It thus inflicts a singular disavowal on the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker who considered that all legality had been respected.

The cause of the mediator's ire is the meeting of the former President of the Commission with a vice-president of the current European executive, the Finn Jirki Katainen, last October, a meeting surrounded by contradictory statements to say the least (read: Goldman Sachs. Barroso violates his commitments not to lobby). Seized of three complaints (1), the mediator opened an investigation in February 2017.

A lobbying affair

For Ms O'Reilly, the ethics committee's initial assessment was based on Mr Barroso's commitment not to lobby the Commission. However, “this was called into question by [the] meeting between Mr Barroso and the vice-president of the Commission Jyrki Katainen. This meeting " was recorded as a meeting with Goldman Sachs bank » and must therefore be « considered a meeting for lobbying purposes ". Mr Barroso and the vice-president later said that the meeting “ was a private and personal interview » (NB: a point of view which can be discussed, this meeting having taken place during office hours. The Ombudsman also asked the Commission to consider requiring that its former president refrain from putting pressure on the Commission for a number of additional years.”

An obligation of trust

« Resubmitting this issue to the Ethics Committee would demonstrate that the Commission has taken very seriously public concerns about this matter and the damage caused to the image of the European institutions – despite the hard work and the ethical behavior of the vast majority of people who work there ", says Ms. O'Reilly. “ Former commissioners have the right to hold office but, as former civil servants, they must also ensure that their actions do not undermine citizens' trust in the EU.”

Concerns in public opinion

Mr. Barroso's new position has caused " serious concerns in public opinion, which should at least have raised concerns within the Commission regarding respect for the duty of discretion underlines the mediator, a former Irish journalist. " Much of the negativity recently felt around this issue could have been avoided if the Commission had, at the time, taken a formal decision regarding Mr Barroso's employment at Goldman Sachs. This could have included, at least requiring, the former president to refrain from lobbying the Commission on behalf of the Bank ».

Systemic problems within the ethics committee

The Ombudsman's investigation also revealed: systemic issues » concerning the way in which the Commission handles this type of matter and the role of the ethics committee. Although the new code of conduct – in force since February 1, 2018 – contains “ some positive changes » according to the Mediator, it must be further strengthened. Ms. O'Reilly therefore proposes three reforms: the expansion of the ethics committee; the power to act on one's own initiative; the extension of the period, during which former commissioners must notify the Commission of any new position they occupy, by several years.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read the recommendation here

(1) Three complaints arrived on the Ombudsman's desk: a group of former and current EU staff, two law professors and a civil society group.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).