If the Goldman Sachs appointment of ex-European Commission president Barroso does not push the Commission to crack down on the ever turning revolving door, nothing will, writes Vicky Cann on behalf of ALTER-EU.
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) is a coalition of more than 200 public interest groups and trade unions promoting democracy in EU decision-making.
When investment bank Goldman Sachs announced its recruitment of former Commission president José Manuel Barroso as new chairman and adviser back in July, even the most seasoned Brussels bubble veterans were left in disbelief. This latest, and arguably most shameless, revolving door scandal once again illustrates the need to overhaul Brussels’ revolving door rules and culture.
Over 60,000 people from across Europe have already signed a petition set up by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) and the European campaigning organisation WeMove.EU. And we don’t stand alone. French European affairs minister Harlem Désir called the Goldman Sachs move “scandalous” and French President François Hollande said it was “morally unacceptable”.
Meanwhile, dozens of MEPs have signed an open letter to current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calling for action; another group of MEPs has written to the European Ombudsman to ask her to investigate this case; and the Ombudsman herself has questioned whether current revolving door rules are sufficient to protect the public interest. Importantly, and tellingly, tens of thousands of people have joined disgruntled staff from the EU institutions in criticising “irresponsible revolving-door practices, which are highly damaging to the EU institutions”.
Barroso’s revolving door move highlights the weakness of current rules for former commissioners – while his appointment by the banking giant has caused much outrage, no rules have apparently been broken. This is a clear indication for the need to thoroughly revise revolving door regulations.
We consider that a former Commission president joining an employer like Goldman Sachs is incompatible with former commissioners’ ongoing duty to behave with “integrity and discretion” when accepting new roles, as set out in EU treaty article 245. In our view, Goldman Sachs is implicated too strongly in the global financial crisis and has lobbied too voraciously against financial regulation to be a suitable employer for a former EU leader.
Goldman Sachs is a very active EU lobby actor, who declares over €1million annual lobby spend and has had at least 23 high-level meetings with the Commission since December 2014. This level of Commission access is impressive and the bank can boast of recent meetings with at least seven commissioners. It is also a member of many lobby groups, including the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA). In 2010, Goldman Sachs and ISDA received the dubious honour of being named Worst EU Lobbyists of the year, nominated for their aggressive lobbying to defend their ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’ – derivatives.
Our petition urges Juncker to immediately review the revolving door rules for EU commissioners once they’ve left office, banning them for at least three years from any job that provokes a conflict of interest, including all direct or indirect EU lobbying. Juncker should also set up a professional, transparent and fully independent ethics committee to authorise roles and apply sanctions if rules are broken. As for the current Barroso case, the Commission should use its leverage from the treaty and raise a case in the Court of Justice seeking to remove Barroso’s entitlement to an EU pension.
After all, this is not the only problematic revolving door move that we have seen by former members of the Barroso II Commission who left office in Autumn 2014. Within months of leaving office, one third of these ex-commissioners had taken roles with strong corporate links.
But it has now become clear that those wishing to take on the most controversial new jobs waited until they were free of any revolving door rules, which currently only apply for 18 months from the end of a commissioner’s term.
Since May 2016, former trade commissioner Karel De Gucht has joined the board of mining giant Arcelor Mittal, while former digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has joined the boards of tech firms Uber and Salesforce – the latter even going back on her own public promise from years before that she would never take on another business role.
While these cases may have been less high-profile than Barroso’s Goldman Sachs move, the risks they pose to the public interest and the “integrity” of the EU institutions as required by EU treaty article 245 are similarly alarming.
Early on, soon after the Goldman Sachs story broke, Juncker’s press spokesman ruled out any revision of the Code of Conduct for Commissioners containing the revolving door rules. Hopefully, the public outrage which has built up over the summer break will force a change of heart.
The most shameless revolving door scandal in the EU’s recent history cannot be ignored and neither can the calls of citizens and MEPs for former EU officials to be held accountable.