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7th Mar 2021

Interview

Katainen explains: My friend Barroso did not lobby me

  • 2011: Jose Manuel Barroso (l) was chief of the European Commission; Jean-Claude Juncker was prime minister of Luxembourg; Jyrki Katainen (r) was prime minister of Finland. Seven years later Juncker has succeeded Barroso, and Katainen is EU commissioner (Photo: European Commission)

Jose Manuel Barroso was not lobbying for Goldman Sachs during a meeting he had with vice-president of the European Commission Jyrki Katainen in a Brussels hotel, according to the Finnish commissioner.

"We are friends. We know each other from years back. I always meet friends whoever they are," Katainen told EUobserver in an interview on Tuesday (20 February).

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Katainen came under intense scrutiny earlier Tuesday after the publication of a letter in which he confirmed the meeting with Barroso had taken place.

The letter raised many questions, because Barroso and his current position at the US investment bank Goldman Sachs was the subject of a major controversy in 2016, days after the Brexit vote.

Although the official cooling off period of 18 months had passed since Barroso left as head of the European Commission, the move was widely criticised because of Goldman Sachs' role in the Greek debt crisis.

The commission then set up an ad hoc ethical committee to investigate if Barroso had broken other EU rules - and found it had not.

Part of the evidence based on which that committee came to its conclusion, was that Barroso had told Juncker "he has not been engaged to lobby on behalf of Goldman Sachs and that he does not intend to do so".

In his first interview on the subject, Katainen told EUobserver that the meeting was in fact private and that to perceive the meeting as Barroso lobbying him was a "misperception".

Beer with Barroso

"I was a prime minister when he was commission president. We became kind of close," said Katainen, who was Finland's prime minister from 2011 to 2014.

Katainen also served as EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs and the euro for four months in 2014 under Barroso's leadership. Katainen then moved on to the jobs and growth portfolio under Juncker.

He said that he had been planning to call Barroso to catch up the next time he would be in Brussels.

"Then actually, he kind of read my thoughts and he called me, or sent a message. "Are you around in Brussels? Let's have a cup of coffee'. I proposed: let's go for a beer," said Katainen.

They met on 25 October 2017, not far from Katainen's office, in a hotel just behind the commission's Berlaymont building

According to Katainen, he did most of the talking, not Barroso.

"If somebody was lobbying, it was me. I was telling [him] about our ambitious trade and defence agenda," said Katainen.

"I know that he is travelling around the world, saying that this is a good story, that Europe is on the move again. This was part of the discussion."

Not interesting to Goldman Sachs?

The other part was "personal things like politics and life".

"It's completely misperception that he was lobbying me. He did not. I'm not even in a position which would be in the interest of Goldman Sachs," said Katainen – although as one of the six vice-presidents of the commission that may be a too modest view.

"You have to understand, we are friends. He did not lobby me. We did not talk about a word of the bank," he said.

Although the meeting was private, Katainen decided to have the get-together documented in the commissioners registry of meetings.

"We knew that no matter he is my friend or not, it's better to put it to the registry. We just wanted to make sure that he is there if somebody is interested," said Katainen.

'Nothing to hide'

However, according to Katainen, his cabinet was supposed to enter Barroso by his name. Instead, it entered 'The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (GS)'.

"I don't know what has been put there. But it was my advice, let's put it there," said Katainen.

Was it also Katainen's advice to put Barroso's full name, instead of only the name of his organisation?

"Yeah, yeah, sure. Because there is nothing to hide. If it was 'Goldman Sachs', then it indicates that Goldman Sachs as a bank [had] something to tell to me. This was not the case."

He added that in future, if he were to meet with Barroso again, he would register the meeting with Barroso's name.

"Of course, of course, of course. I'm all in favour of complete transparency," he said.

One reason why Katainen's cabinet decided to enter the company's name, could be that registered meetings have to be with entities that are part of the lobby register. Barroso is not registered as a private lobbyist - but his organisation Goldman Sachs is.

No notes

Katainen also explained why did not take notes during the meeting.

"When I have a private beer with friends, I don't take notes what my friend is saying to me. But if somebody is lobbying ... me, then of course there is somebody from the cabinet always who is taking notes," he said.

The commission vice-president said he understood that some would find it challenging for him to delineate between the friend Barroso and the potential lobbyist Barroso.

"I understand this. On the other hand, if it means that I can never meet a person who I consider as my friend, it's not right either. If he wanted to influence to me whatever the issue – it's better to do officially," he said.

"I really don't know if I should refuse meeting a person like Barroso, even in private capacity. It's not right. Everybody has human rights and we just have to be strict. That's why I put him to the registry, [so] that everybody can see that I have met him even though it was completely private discussion."

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