Barrosogate and the revolt of public opinion
Just days after Britain’s vote to leave the EU on 23 June, the European Commission was rocked by the news that Goldman Sachs had added former commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to its payroll.
The ex-president's announcement to the press that he will advise the bank's clients on how to avoid the harmful consequences of Brexit let loose an unprecedented furore, which only intensified as the EU executive tried to brush off criticism.
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And as the fuss grew, so did interest and concern over the ethics of other top officials – in particular the ”revolving door” between politics and business.
The scandal that became known as Barrosogate mobilised an unprecedented alliance of NGOs, journalists, academia, the EU ombudsman and MEPs who all argued that the EU executive could no longer snub concerns that their leaders put business and their own careers before citizens’ interests.
They questioned whether the commission’s current rules, which say that top EU officials need to apply for permission before taking up a job for 18 months, were adequate and stressed that article 245 of the EU treaties required commissioners to behave with integrity both during and after their term of office.
Transparency campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) investigated the post-EU life of former commissioners and said one in three were now using their contacts and experience to lobby for their new employer’s interests.
The commission’s own employees launched a petition asking for sanctions of their former boss, saying it was ”a disastrous symbol for the union and a gift horse for the europhobes that a former commission president is associated with the unbridled and unethical financial values that Goldman Sachs represents”.
Their appeal was signed by over 152,000 people. Another one, organised by NGOs, gathered a further 63,000 signatures.
"Nothing ever captured the public imagination as the Barroso case," the EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly told this publication in an interview, and suggested it was a consequence of Brexit and the other challenges buffeting the EU.
"In times of crisis, people get more involved in scrutinising their political leaders. They want to know why things go bad, and what can be done to stop them from happening again. They want to be reassured with strong statements in the public interest," O'Reilly said.
"Barrosogate" could be turned into something good, if used as impetus to change the system, she believed.
Current commission president Jean-Claude Juncker did not it see it that way.
The Luxembourg politician had come to his post by promising a "political" commission "of last resort", which would win back the trust of EU citizens.
Only two years into the job, his vow now looks forlorn.
Instead of distancing himself from his predecessor, the president sent his spokesmen to argue that Barroso had not broken any rules and that the commission’s code of conduct was the "strictest in the world".
When Juncker broke his silence, it was through interviews with chosen media, where he admitted that Barroso had made a "bad choice" of employer.
After the ombudsman wrote to Juncker to demand explanations, he referred the case to the commission's internal ethical panel.
The committee, however, only added to confusion, by presenting an opinion in which it noted that Barroso lacked judgement and hurt the EU by associating it with the “negative image of financial greed” symbolised by Goldman Sachs. But it concluded that the ex-president had respected the 18-month cooling off period.
”Whether the code is sufficiently strict in these respects is not for the committee to answer,” the panel said in its written opinion.
Its interpretation was so narrow that it voided article 245 of all meaning, Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris, remarked at the time. Alemanno, a persistent critic of the commission's handling of the Barroso case, said that the panel - which consisted of three members, all of whom had worked for the EU for most of their lives - must also be reformed.
"The EU institutional machinery remains largely insulated from the rapidly changing zeitgeist. What Barroso did may have been acceptable ten years ago, but it's no longer the case," he told this website.
In November, in an effort to silence the critics, Juncker's team issued a press release to say the commission wanted to prolong the cooling off period for ex-presidents to three years, and two years for the rest of the college. But the measure was widely dismissed as too little, too late.
Some of the EU's most ardent supporters had by then already denounced the Juncker commission as "its own worst enemy", whose handling of the Barroso case only profited the union's detractors.
This story was first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.