September 23, 2016
The appearance of Neelie Kroes in the Bahamas leaks would be bad enough by itself but, together with the controversy over José Manuel Durão Barroso's job at Goldman Sachs, it is causing the European Commission massive reputational damage. So far, Jean-Claude Juncker retains a modicum of public support, but that might change very quickly. The situation is highly accident-prone.
In a strongly worded editorial, Le Monde speaks of the moral treason of the elites, who have had a sickly attraction to money for twenty years. The paper writes
"The Commission cannot spend its time demanding of the people of Europe a probity and ethics inspired by Montequieu and Max Weber, which some of its members happily flaunt."
Le Monde then launches into a defence of Juncker, who it writes is subject to "a denigrating campaign" in Brussels because he fights with the zeal of the convert - against Apple and tax dodging, for a European redistribution of refugees, and for a less strict fiscal policy.
From the tone of public pronouncements on the case, we would expect the Commission to give Kroes at least the treatment meted out to José Manuel Durão Barroso, who should then be satisfied he isn't being discriminated against. Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters
"There are certain things that even the strictest rules, like ours, cannot fix. This was the case of our former president who made the choice to go to work for a certain bank and this is now the case of a former commissioner, who apparently did not respect the rules, and apparently did not inform the Commission."
The Commission is not hiding its displeasure at the personal choices made by former commissioners, over which the Commission has no control. But they do control how they react to them. The EU ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly said the Kroes case raises concerns about the ability of the Commission's code of conduct to restrain commissioners, and reiterated her call - made on the Barroso case - to strenghten the code of conduct. O'Reilly played a leading part in the process leading to Barroso losing his "red carpet" treatment as a former commission president in reaction to his Goldman Sachs directorship.
Kroes could face the loss of her Commission pension, were it not for the fact that she isn't drawing it. She could also lose the three-year "transitional allowance" intended to smooth out Commissioners' incomes after they leave their post, given the 18-month cooling-off period during which they must seek authorisation to work in the private sector. Kroes, who holds positions at three major corporations, might be drawing the allowance minimally, if at all. Transparency International's European director Carl Dolan, mindful of the meagre impact of economic sanctions, is hoping for "social sanctions." In addition to being treated as a lobbyist, he suggests she should even not be welcome as one.
It should come as no surprise that Jean Claude Juncker yesterday sent a letter to Neelie Kroes asking her for "clarification" regarding her failure to disclose ties with the Bahamas company Mint Holdings, uncovered by the ICIJ from the so-called "Bahamas leaks." What is a bit shocking is that Kroes' lawyers had written to Juncker about this last Friday - after being contacted by journalists - but the email remained unnoticed until the story broke in the press on Wednesday, reports the Guardian.
Le Monde's "zeal of the convert" is a peculiarly à propos turn of phrase to describe Juncker, who just two years ago in his first months in office was fighting the Luxleaks PR disaster. On this, we have found a quite extraordinary recent video interview with Juncker reported by Le Point, in which - asked how he can credibly fight tax evasion, having for 18 years been the finance minister of "Europe's biggest tax haven" - he answers with a straight face "poachers make the best gamekeepers." He then turns the question around on his French interviewer, asking whether she's sure France hasn't been engaging in the maligned practice of tax rulings, and warning her that if she investigates her own country she "may not like what she finds."
We also have stories on Renzi asking for even more flexibility; on Sánchez' political plans; on the IMF's report on Portugal; on the Greek parliament getting another multi-bill; on Unicredit's sale of its asset management business, and its wider European implications; on the ECB's legal constraints in expanding the QE programme; on why soft Brexit options are hard; and on the arrival soon of helicopter money.