Perhaps I’m missing something but scandals appear to be few and far between in Brussels. And when they do erupt — as is the case just now over former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso’s decision to join the global banking giant Goldman Sachs — it’s about moral corruption, ethics and integrity rather than money or sex.
Maybe this is because Europeans are overall more worldly-wise, more tolerant and less easily shocked than, say, their counterparts in the United States. It could be that everyone here is so busy worrying about the fate of Europe that other things just pale in comparison.
Or perhaps people in Brussels are particularly well-behaved and orderly. After all no senior Eurocrat has been caught sexting like former US congressman Anthony Weiner. And unlike US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, there have been no nude pictures published of senior European politicians’ wives.
And yet Brussels hosts thousands of European Union officials, foreign diplomats, people working for Nato and of course members of the Belgian government. There are also thousands of hangers-on in the form of lobbyists, lawyers, think tankers, journalists and business leaders — all trying to get a word in when the EU gets busy with legislating and regulating.
This exciting mix of nationalities, languages, interests, religions and colours is visible in the EU institutions and in Nato and in the cafes, streets and markets of Brussels. With so many people meeting, talking, lunching and partying, scandals of all sorts should be rife. They are not.
But the Barroso-Goldman Sachs affair has certainly got tongues wagging. So why all this wrath and fury? After all people change jobs all the time. Senior public servants with clout and influence are in great demand as lobbyists and consultants after they retire. That’s the case the world over. And Brussels is no different. Moving from cushy EU jobs to equally cushy private sector jobs has been the name of the game in this town for years.
Some cases of revolving doors have raised eyebrows in the past. But the noise and the fury soon die down. And then it’s business as usual. This appears to be the case for former EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht who has joined the board of mining giant Arcelor Mittal. The former EU digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has joined the boards of tech firms Uber and Salesforce.
The Barroso-Goldman Sachs partnership, however, appears to be a step too far even in this town of cosy arrangements. Thousands of people — including EU officials — have signed a petition denouncing Barroso’s new job.
French politicians have called the move “scandalous” and “morally unacceptable” and dozens of members of the European parliament have signed an open letter to current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calling for action.
In principle, Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister who was European Commission president from 2004 to 2014, has not broken any rules. The EU stipulates that its senior staff must respect a mandatory 18-month cooling-off period before moving to a new job after retirement. The former Commission chief has done that.
But the criticism focuses on the ethics of his decision, not its legality. Critics allege that 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.
There is a concern that Barroso is being hired to help the bank navigate the uncharted waters of Brexit. And that the former Commission chief will use his inside knowledge and influence with his former staff to get things done his way.
The former Commission chief has been accused of showing poor judgement. There are accusations of conflict of interest and fears that his decision will further damage already discredited EU institutions.
According to the EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, “Public unease will be exacerbated by the fact that Mr Barroso has publicly stated that he will be advising on the UK’s decision to leave the EU.”
Certainly, the European public has a great deal to worry about these days. Fears of terrorism and wariness about the large number of refugees and migrants mix uncomfortably with uncertainty over Brexit, the continuing eurozone crisis and deepening divisions between East and West.
Barroso’s new job is hardly going to give any sane European sleepless nights. But at a time of multiple crises, Europeans want their politicians to be sensitive and responsive to their concerns.
The criticism is that the former Commission chief has shown a striking lack of judgement and understanding of the current anger and unease in Europe. So unlike in the US and other parts of the world, Europeans don’t mind if their politicians indulge in a bit of fun and frolics. But this is no time to be joining the ranks of rich bankers.