Barroso awaiting judgement after turbulent decade

Jose Manuel Barroso is leaving after 10 years at the head of an oft-derided European Commission, but insists he has done his best, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill

Barroso awaiting judgement after turbulent decade

There is no lonelier job than being yesterday’s man. And Jose Manuel Barroso may have taken the late night calls, held prime ministers’ hands as their countries threatened to implode, talked up the euro when the world was ready to tear it to shreds, but after 10 years as European Commission president, the chill air from the open exit door now whips around his ankles.

He has faced more abuse than most, damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, not gifted with the entrancing charisma of people like Bill Clinton,and was European Commission president during the most traumatic years faced by the EU.

But having spent ten years as one of the most powerful men in Europe,the time has now come to say goodbye. With a sensitive skin surprising in a politician, the former Portuguese prime minister is obviously fearful that history will find him wanting.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, he says he will leave that to the historians, adding quickly: “Nevertheless I am sure that any rigorous historian will consider the historical context”.

Blamed for allowing himself to be pushed around by Germany and France,for doing their bidding rather than reinforcing the commission’s role of representing the union of Europe, he rushes to explain.

“We were facing the most difficult times in a new setting of 28 countries, with extreme pressure from the markets. The differences in Europe on financial matters are not just between Finland and Greece, they start between France and Germany”.

He worked very hard to get France and Germany to work together - they are seen as the engine of the EU - but then at times, they reached an agreement between them, excluding him and the rest of the EU.

At the height of the crisis when every word uttered by from a minister caused markets to add to countries’ borrowing costs, decisions were taken at summits only to be interpreted differently by national governments at home thefollowing next day. “We [the commission] were always in the centre of discussion, more discreetly. I wanted to avoid the cacophony.” , he says.

When he took the job ten years ago, he was the choice of Tony Blair, having hosted the war summit with US President George Bush on the islands of the Azores that with Spain, created the “coalition of the willing” against French opposition, and furthered the ‘war on terror’ that toppledIraq’s Saddam Hussain.

He was 48 years of age, fluent in several languages, had moved along the full political spectrum from a Maoist student leader during Portugal’s authoritarian regime to become a centre right prime minister. The EU hadjust enlarged from 15 to 25 members and since has become 28. Security, Guantanamo Bay, climate change, and catching up with US growth were the headline main issues.

Elected unopposed by prime ministers and the European Parliament for a second five year term in 2009, he continued to be accused of running a weak commission, overly complaint to German wishes with the occasional nod to the French.

And then in 2007, the euro and the EU were brought face to face with the possibility of their demise. “It was the single most acute emergency the EU faced since it was formed in the 1950s. We had the prediction of disintegration, of Greek euro exit, the euro area split.”

But the prophets of doom were proved wrong and, for Barroso, the EU has emerged stronger and proved it had the capacity to adapt. From never having considered the possibility of bail-outs, from the rejection of rescuing one-another’s banks they progressed, mobilised hundreds of billions of euro, setting up rescue funds, first with the commission’s money and later a permanent rescue fund.

“The EU has powers and competences that our predecessors could not dream of: to reject a draft budget — now achieved; the ECB to become the single banking supervisor — unimaginable, now done”.Of course,

For many, the commission is seen as the battering ram behind the troika and the wish of bigger players to deprive smaller countries of the well planned advantages they offer foreign investors.

Barroso defends their actions, saying it is motivated by the need to prevent multinationals playing off countries off against one another to avoid the tax that every ordinary individual is expected to pay. He rejects the role of menacing overlord, pointing to the commission’s fund for the most deprived, the globalisation fund to retrain those out of work, and arguing to include social targets in countries’ budget programmes.

“I have argued with surplus countries to be more generous in loans to Ireland, extend the maturities, I spent hours and hours trying to convince the capitals to be more generous and show solidarity and be more responsible.

“Consensus in the EU has its difficulties and the pendulum was not always right, that is clear, because the strength of those lending money is more than those who need the loans for their own survival, and some of the countries were very close to bankruptcy — the abyss, not just Spain but Italy and France — they were under severe scrutiny and faced dramatic moments.

“When you see the spectacular rise of Ireland — it is a great demonstration that the policies are the right ones — it is possible to have reforms and get growth …[Ireland now] able to borrow on the markets at 1.6%, lower than countries that did not need programme.

“Frontloading fiscal consolidation — the cuts — was the right thing to do”.

Solidarity is as important as sharing strict rules so the most deprived can count on a helping hand, he says.

Looking at the drama on a day to day basis, people lose the bigger picture. But looking to the longer term trend, the EU has been gaining competences, is more integrated, and the institutions have seen their competences reinforced, he says.

The EU’s strength has been evident in the past few months where in spite of Russian military action, Ukraine signed and ratified the association agreement with the EU — which could be a precursor to membership — as did Moldova and Georgia.

In trade too, where the EU negotiates on behalf of its member states,agreements have been completed with Korea, Singapore and several Central and South American countries, and Canada is in the pipeline, while the deal with the US, known as TTIP, is still stuttering along.Expanding trade agreements also marked a break with history. “In past recessions countries resorted to protectionism, this did not happen this time”.The EU adopted a global strategy also in response to the economic crisis with French President Nicolas Sarkozy holding the rotating EU presidency at the time and Barroso convincing George W Bush to organise the first G20 summit - including newcomers to the traditional G6.“Bush was not very enthusiastic, the US did not want to be blamed for the crisis after Lehman brothers”. The same G20 has been one of the most important multi-lateral developments in recent decades, now tackling regulation, tax evasion and fraud, he points out.

But Barroso supports the mantra of rules-based Germany and a tough troika and points with pride to the 40 pieces of legislation for financial supervision and reforms. “Reforms are the name of the game at national level. It is impressive what Ireland, Portugal, Spain have done.” Others too — reforms in tax, public administration, education — impressive in some cases, encouraging in others”.

He would have liked to do more with the commission’s budget — use it to leverage money that could be used by member states to create jobs and growth. He doesn’t say it, but his plan was turned down by the member states, although some other schemes like project bonds and increasing the lending capacity of the European Investment Bank have been eventually adopted.

“I would have preferred to go further. The rhythm of the member states is not the same as the markets — not always the clarity and speed we would have preferred”, he says referring to the tardiness of creditor countries in taking responsibility for the euro. But in the end when they did move, he notes that “all steps were for more and not less integration — stronger than the forces for fragmentation.”

This is doubtless true irrespective of who can claim to be responsible.

“The leaders understand that the EU is not a foreign power, that it is their project,” he asserts.

But then, with the air of a boxer who has been through too many rough rounds, he adds: “Unfortunately they like to present decisions as an imposition — decisions they have taken unanimously.

“I’m aware that the commission is not very popular in many quarters, because political leaders use the commission as a scapegoat”.The commission is an indispensable body to deal with EU matters, the only one with the knowledge and expertise of a union of Europe, that is sensible to the problems of all countries. “So the commission is something they should treasure and defend. It’s an irreplaceable institution”, he says.

But he firmly believes the root of euro-scepticism is not the fiscal crisis which may have aggravated it, but the anti-migration movement that predated the crisis. The US is also suffering this with the Tea-Party, which US President Barack Obama told him the previous weeks was also a populist movement with the same nationalist, anti-foreign, anti-migration, anti-globalisation philosophy.

This poses a threat to the EU, as do the perceived lack of legitimacy of the Union that needs national leaders to take ownership of the EU project and have the courage to win peoples hearts and minds.

“For me the problem is not the arguments of the eurosceptics — it is better that they express themselves — but the lack of vision and courage of the pro-Europeans. They should leave their comfort zone and fight for something we should cherish. We are taking it for granted we live in peace with freedom of movement. It may not be there for ever. We have to fight for our values, for universal rights, for the rights of women, of men that are not universal — and this too is why we need more foreign and security policy and defence, because there are threats on our borders”.

Heading up a derided institution, used as a political football by national governments that put their own national and party interests first, but to which they turn repeatedly for ideas, for plans, for the steps needed to move forward together, is not easy. And Mr Barroso is aware that the fog of history may cloud his achievements.

Pushed to say how he would like to be remembered in the history books, he says, “At least as someone who has shown resilience and done my best — the judgement of my conscience — during this 10 years, a lot of work, dedication. It’s for the others to make the analysis and I respect all the analysis good or negative. For me I’ve done my best, and that is sufficient”

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up