Goldman Sachs executive Jose Manuel Barroso, a former top EU chief, in row over Brussels lobbying

  • A letter sent by the current European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen to the Corporate Europe Observatory confirmed Tuesday that a meeting between Barroso and Katainen took place in Brussels last October.
  • The meeting was registered in the vice president's calendar as a meeting with "Goldman Sachs."
Horacio Villalobos - Corbis | Getty Images | Getty Images News

Jose Manuel Barroso, a non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, has been criticized for allegedly trying to lobby members of the European Commission — the body he presided over for 10 years.

A letter sent by the current European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen to the Corporate Europe Observatory, a non-profit group focused on lobbying, confirmed Tuesday that a meeting between Barroso and Katainen took place in Brussels last October. The meeting was registered in the vice president's calendar as a meeting with "Goldman Sachs."

However, Katainen has quickly denied accusations that the former president tried to lobby him. His cabinet wasn't immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC, but Katainen told EUobserver Tuesday afternoon that Barroso didn't try to seek any influence during the meeting.

"We are friends. We know each other from years back. I always meet friends whoever they are," Katainen told the publication.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, the current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said this is a non-subject.

"I'm of the opinion that the meeting between Jose Manuel Barroso, my predecessor, and my vice-president, was respecting in full the rules the Commission has adopted," Juncker said.

"We never said that Jose Manuel Barroso couldn't have meetings with commissioners and that commissioners would not be allowed meetings with the former president of the European Commission. We put him on the list of the lobbyists, the meeting between Jyrki Katainen and Jose Manuel Barroso was made public … Had we not made public this meeting, I could understand your question," Juncker told journalists, adding that this story "is nothing."

Goldman Sachs also denies that Barroso has tried to lobby the European executive body. "As Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, Jose Manuel Barroso represents our firm with clients, public figures and other important stakeholders. He has from the beginning of his time with us recused himself from representing the firm with any interactions with EU officials. Any such meetings are in his personal capacity built over a long career of public service," a spokesperson at the investment bank told CNBC.

Lobbying isn't against European rules, and there is no suggestion that Barroso has done so. But in this case it could seen that he would have a stronger influence on the institution for having been its president, and would be frowned upon after he said he would steer clear of any EU lobbying.

News in 2016 that Barroso would be working for Goldman Sachs raised eyebrows and started a public outcry with thousands of people signing petitions demanding measures against the former president.

An EU ethics panel ruled in November of 2016 that Barroso had not violated any European rules when deciding to take a top job at the investment bank. However, non-profit organizations looking at lobbying in Brussels have called for a re-assessment of Barroso's acceptance to work for Goldman Sachs.

Margarida Silva, Corporate Europe Observatory's transparency and ethics campaigner, told CNBC Wednesday morning that "the way in which EU Vice-President and Commissioner Katainen has handled his meeting with Barroso strongly indicates that it was a lobby meeting. Katainen's cabinet listed the get-together as an official meeting with Goldman Sachs International, and in his letter to us Katainen says he 'met with Mr Barroso from Goldman Sachs [...] where we mostly discussed trade and defense'."

Silva added that "the fact remains that the privileged status of an insider like ex-President Barroso, who apparently can simply pick up the phone and get a one-to-one chat with a sitting commissioner about current EU policy, is a great asset for any actor seeking to influence EU policy."