LISBON (Reuters) - Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Friday put up a spirited defense of his right to work for U.S. bank Goldman Sachs, after the commission opened an ethics probe into his move, and he accused it of acting arbitrarily.
"Why would I not have the right to work where I choose, if it is a legal entity, obviously, not a drug cartel?" a visibly agitated Barroso, who is a former Portuguese prime minister, said in his first public comments to reporters at an event in Cascais near Lisbon.
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.
Many ex-commissioners have taken roles with private firms. But EU officials say the view of Goldman Sachs in European public opinion after the 2008 financial meltdown has made Barroso's move damaging to EU institutions. Many Europeans hold the U.S. institution partly responsible for the crisis, which nearly broke the euro.
Barroso's successor Jean-Claude Juncker asked the Commission's ethics panel earlier this month to look into whether Barroso had breached a requirement to act with integrity.
But Barroso, who has previously sent a letter to Juncker calling the claims baseless and discriminatory against him and Goldman Sachs, said he did not regret his decision and again attacked his critics.
"Who defines what banks one can work at? This is arbitrary, discretionary treatment for political purposes."
He lauded Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa for requesting explanations from Juncker last week "on the differentiated treatment of Barroso compared to other people in apparently identical situations".
"The prime minister may agree or not with my attitude and my choice, but he is defending me as a Portuguese," Barroso said.
"As a Portuguese and European citizen I do not accept being limited in my rights. I have done everything transparently, scrupulously following the rules," he said, referring to a code of conduct requiring former commissioners to seek permission before taking jobs for up to 18 months after stepping down.
(Reporting by Andrei Khalip Editing by Axel Bugge; Editing by Hugh Lawson)