A Bolder Barroso: Too Little, Too Late?

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European Commission President José Manuel Barroso waited until nearly the middle of his second mandate to show bold ambitions for the European project, but his move has likely come too late.

barrosoIn his annual State of the Union address in the European Parliament last week, Barroso promised that Greece would not leave the eurozone; called for a revision of the unanimity rule which applies to top European Union decisions; spoke a few words in favour of Eurobonds; hinted at a new institutional framework for the euro area; proposed an EU-wide financial transaction tax; and boldly advocated freedom of movement within the EU.

Barroso’s words recalled the spirit of the pugnacious former commission president Jacques Delors – with a crucial difference: political opportunism, rather than genuine support for the cause, drives Barroso’s every move. It may sound cynical, but if his career-minded approach had successfully brought results, there would have been no complaints. Unfortunately, Barroso’s regular bowing to capitals’ bullying has wrecked the common machine to the extent that it will take a long time to fully recover.

The last few years have seen a disproportionate increase of national interests in the EU’s decision-making process, while the institutions have been sidelined by member states’ initiatives. Reversing the tide is not easy.

Barroso is at the same time both the effect and the cause of this trend. It is widely accepted that he was appointed in a phase of nationalistic revival in Europe because he seemed the most docile candidate, the least likely to stand in the way of national plans. The notorious summit in the Azores which he hosted in 2003, when he was Portugal’s prime minister, won him the backing of the powerful Anglo-Saxon lobby.

Guests at that meeting were former United States’ President George W Bush, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. That summit decided the military intervention in Iraq without United Nations’ approval. A year and a half later, Barroso was appointed president of the commission. Anglo-Saxon backing, together with growing nationalistic attitudes in France and Germany, and eastern member states’ attention to Washington’s suggestions, made Barroso the inevitable choice.

European leaders wanted less Europe, and Barroso was the result of this. But over the years, he has also become the cause of the gradual decline in the EU institutions’ influence. He has systematically avoided raising issues that might be unpleasant for the most influential member states, therefore delegating his powers to Berlin, Paris, London and Rome. His bowing became almost ostentatious ahead of his second appointment in 2010, when he turned a blind eye to several dubious deals and dropped a number of legitimate commission claims with the aim of obtaining member states’ support for a second five-year term.

Now he has nothing to lose, and his stance has become less deferential. But his reputation is tarnished. And results are slow to come. Currently, none of Barroso’s belated proposals have much chance of getting through.

That Greece will not leave the eurozone is a hope rather than a commitment. The Greeks themselves are obviously responsible for having brought their country to the brink of collapse. But the Greek and eurozone crisis could easily have been avoided if the communitarian approach had prevailed over domestic interests since the beginning. The first bill to save Greece was only €25bn in February 2010. Indecision and national miscalculations have now swollen the costs up to €200bn. Athens’ exit from the euro zone is now an option.

Abolishing unanimity in EU decision-making is an overly-ambitious target which will not happen any time soon.

Eurobonds are certainly a pragmatic instrument to counter eurozone debt unbalances and widening differences in public financing costs. But Barroso confined himself to saying that only the least ambitious option is doable, without specifying how it would work. And this is already a step forward for a man who had kept saying in past years that he would not propose common bonds because member states did not like them – a sort of model for his deferential approach to decision-making.

The new eurozone institutional framework, likely to be outlined at the next EU summit on 17-18 October, is mainly the result of member states’ pressures to tighten their grip on economic decisions. The commission is again on the defensive, trying to prevent the possible new Mr Euro from snatching the real power from the EU executive.

The financial transaction tax proposal comes only because it was strongly pushed for by Germany. Its application across the EU is, however, far from certain, and its impact on the EU economy must still be assessed in detail.

Finally, Barroso’s heartfelt appeal for freedom of circulation within the EU sounds like a mockery to Bulgaria and Romania, who have just seen the refusal of their legitimate request to access the Schengen free-movement area due to a wave of xenophobia wave in Finland and the Netherlands. The commission was again a spectator. And when a commissioner, Viviane Reding, tried to defend the right to free movement against French arrogance in the Roma case in 2010, Barroso stepped in to rein in his daring commissioner.
Barroso’s belated list of cures is in principle correct – but only if applied by a credible doctor.

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