On Juncker’s big day, Barroso row casts shadow
By Alastair Macdonald — Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Union’s chief executive, had his annual moment in the spotlight on Wednesday, but his predecessor has cast an unwelcome if unmentioned shadow on his State of the Union address. Just as Juncker was telling Europeans the British vote to quit the bloc must not mean the end of an EU seen by critics as out of touch with citizens and in thrall to global capital, he is rowing with Jose Manuel Barroso for being hired by US investment bank Goldman Sachs.
The quarrel, in which Barroso has accused Juncker of taking “discriminatory” measures against him and the bank by opening an ethics probe in response to a public outcry, underlines developments in politics, not just in Europe, that create dilemmas for many in high office.
First is rising mistrust of politicians: Quicker to believe they are in it for profit, voters are turning to populist alternatives. If the EU is, as Juncker said on Wednesday in “existential crisis”, the personal conduct of its leading figures will help shape its fate.
Mention of Barroso in the European Parliament’s State of the Union debate came from Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader who wants the rest of the EU to be wound up after Brexit.
Farage — a former City trader himself — offered sarcastic congratulations to Barroso on his “highly paid job” at Goldman and told Juncker: “The big boys, I’m sure, will look after you.”
Second, leaders are getting younger but living longer, hence a trend in big names seeking new roles to earn a good living. And third, a response by institutions to tighten up rules on what former office-holders do is leading them into tricky value judgments about public perceptions of conflicts of interest.
Those in turn are tough to capture in hard and fast legal regulations.
Barroso, in a letter to Juncker excerpted in the Financial Times on Tuesday, pointed out that many previous European commissioners have taken private sector jobs. He and Goldman insist they have acted legally and with high ethical standards.
The former Portuguese prime minister, who stepped down after a decade as Commission president two years ago, was appointed non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs’ international arm in London two weeks after the Brexit referendum stunned Brussels.
Juncker himself had made clear in July that he disapproved of Barroso’s move. “I would not have done it,” he said. But his initial reaction was that Barroso had not broken a code of conduct which obliges former commissioners to seek permission for new jobs only in the first 18 months after leaving office.
However, pressed by the EU’s ethics watchdog, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who cited the damage the affair was doing to public trust in the EU, Juncker last week ordered an ethics panel to determine whether Barroso had broken a broader obligation, with no time limit, to act with “integrity”.
“The most important challenge for the EU today is one of trust and legitimacy,” O’Reilly said.
“It may have perfect legal legitimacy but not yet the popular legitimacy among many people in Europe,” she said, in reference to widespread public perceptions that EU institutions are not as democratically accountable as national governments.
Daniel Freund at the Brussels office of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said Barroso’s case was part of a trend to which there were no simple answers — namely what does a fairly young ex-leader do with the rest of their lives?
Barroso was only 58 when he stepped down from the Commission and at 60 is a year younger than Juncker.
The prime minister who led Britain into the Brexit vote, David Cameron, quit parliament this week at just 49 and said he is seeking a new career.
“High-level politicians… are becoming younger,” Freund said, noting as an example US President Barack Obama, who will still be only 55 when he steps down in January. “These are still relatively young men at the peak of their careers so they’re not
just going to go golfing and throw dinner parties.” — Reuters