EU watchdog calls for reopening ethics case against Goldman's Barroso

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Brussels (AFP)

An EU watchdog on Thursday urged the European Commission to reopen an ethics case against Jose Manuel Barroso, its former chief turned Goldman Sachs executive, raising fresh questions about transparency in Brussels corridors of power.

European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly issued the call, just days after receiving complaints in a separate case about the rapid promotion of Martin Selmayr, the right-hand man of current Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

The European Commission, the 28-nation EU executive, should "refer the case of the former Commission president (Barroso) back for an opinion by the ethics committee," O'Reilly said.

In 2016, the panel cleared Barroso of breaking bloc rules by taking the Goldman job but O'Reilly said it must now look into revelations that Barroso met with a Commission vice president, Jyrki Katainen, in a Brussels hotel last year.

She stressed the importance of maintaining citizen trust in EU institutions, following growing discontent with EU institutions that led to Brexit and strong election results for eurosceptic parties across the bloc.

Peppered with questions about Barroso at the daily news briefing, Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: "We take note of the ombudsman's announcement and we will reply within the deadline she sets for June 6."

In a tweet, Barroso denied that he had lobbied the EU, echoing previous denials that the October 25 meeting with Katainen was only to catch up with an old friend.

"I have not and will not lobby EU officials," the former Portuguese premier wrote.

Barroso's hiring in 2016 by the US investment bank, after 10 years at the head of the Commission from 2004 to 2014, sparked a huge media firestorm with then French president Francois Hollande saying it was "unacceptable".

Goldman was widely blamed in Brussels for its role in the 2008 global crash and eurozone debt crisis.

After a probe, the EU ethics committee cleared Barroso, who had waited the compulsory 18 months since leaving office before taking the Goldman job, of breaching ethics rules but it nevertheless criticised his "judgement".

Barroso had insisted in a letter to Juncker that "I have not been hired to lobby for Goldman Sachs and I do not intend to do so".

- 'Duty of discretion' -

O'Reilly's office said the ethics panel's initial assessment reflected a pledge from Barroso that he would not lobby the Commission, but added "this has now been put in doubt by a meeting" with Katainen.

It said the meeting appeared to be for the "purposes of lobbying" as it was registered as one with Goldman Sachs, even though the two participants described it later as a private and personal encounter.

"Ex-Commissioners have a right to post-office employment but as former public servants they must also ensure that their actions do not undermine citizens? trust in the EU," O'Reilly said.

"Mr Barroso's new post generated serious public disquiet, this should, at the very least, have raised concerns within the Commission about whether it complied with the duty of discretion," she said.

Alter-EU, a coalition of anti-corruption NGOs, wrote to the Commission last month charging that Barroso had failed to keep his pledge not to lobby.

Questioned at the end of February, Juncker said the Barroso-Katainen meeting was completely within the rules, especially because it had been made public.

The former Luxembourg premier said the Commission "never" said Barroso could not meet commissioners, adding the former chief is not a gangster.

For the meeting with Katainen, Goldman Sachs is written in the transparency register, but Barroso's name does not appear, AFP observed.

The Commission has not responded to AFP queries on the matter.

O'Reilly tweeted in recent days that she received two complaints about the sudden promotion last month of Juncker's right-hand man, Martin Selmayr, to the post of secretary general of the Commission.

Schinas has defended the promotion as one where the commission "religiously" followed the rules before a flurry of questions about the speed and apparent lack of transparency around it.