By Alastair Macdonald
STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has accused his successor Jean-Claude Juncker of "discriminatory" behavior for opening an ethics probe into his taking a job with U.S. bank Goldman Sachs.
In a letter to Juncker reported by the Financial Times on Tuesday, the former Portuguese prime minister who stepped down as the EU's chief executive two years ago, said the inquiry launched after a public outcry at his appointment was "inconsistent" with treatment of other former commissioners.
Goldman appointed Barroso as non-executive chairman of its international arm in London two weeks after Britons voted for Brexit in June and he said he would advise it on issues arising from the negotiations for Britain to leave the European Union.
Juncker initially made clear his disapproval but said the Commission had no power to intervene. But after the EU Ombudsman insisted last week that there should be an inquiry, Juncker asked the Commission's ethics panel to look into whether Barroso breached a requirement to act with integrity.
According to excerpts of the letter published by the paper, Barroso wrote: "It has been claimed that the mere fact of working with Goldman Sachs raises questions of integrity.
"Whilst I respect that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, the rules are clear and they must be respected. These claims are baseless and wholly unmerited. They are discriminatory against me and against Goldman Sachs.
He said he was concerned that the issue had been prejudged and added: "Not only are these actions discriminatory but they appear to be inconsistent with decisions taken in respect of other former members of the Commission."
Barroso could not immediately be reached for comment.
A Commission spokeswoman confirmed the letter was received by Juncker. He will use his annual State of the Union address to EU lawmakers in Strasbourg on Wednesday to urge voters to renew their trust in the Union following the British rejection of it.
EU national leaders plan to deliver a similar message when they meet for a summit in Bratislava on Friday.
INTEGRITY AND PERCEPTION
EU officials have said that Barroso did not break a code of conduct requiring former commissioners to seek permission before taking jobs for up to 18 months after stepping down because Barroso's 10-year tenure as president ended 20 months earlier.
However, the European Ombudsman, citing public outcry that includes a petition started by EU staff, said that a broader requirement to act with integrity, enshrined in the EU treaties, had no time limit. Officials say each such case should be judged on merit and that public perceptions must be taken into account.
Many ex-commissioners have taken roles with private firms, but EU officials say the particular perception of Goldman Sachs in European public opinion has made the move by Barroso damaging just as Juncker is trying to revive trust in institutions.
The Brexit vote and a rise of anti-EU parties across the continent has been partly driven, EU leaders believe, by public perceptions that Brussels is undemocratic and run by elites in hock to global capital. Goldman is associated by many Europeans with the global financial crisis, which pitched euro zone states into severe debt problems and job-destroying austerity policies.
That such a high-profile figure as the former president of the Commission should not only work for Goldman but advise it on how to handle a British exit which has battered confidence in the Union has angered many senior officials in EU institutions.
Goldman Sachs says it respects all laws and the highest ethical standards. It said in July Barroso would help the firm advise clients on dealing with the ensuing "challenging and uncertain economic and market environment".
The Ombudsman has asked that three-person Ad Hoc Ethical Committee should take a view on Barroso's move within weeks. In principle, it can recommend to the Commission that it cut the pension and other rights of former commissioners.
(This version of the story corrects to non-executive chairman in paragraph three, adds dropped word he in same paragraph).
(Editing by Alison Williams)