EU has survived economic crisis, Barroso says in first State of Union address
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a major speech on Tuesday morning said the EU has survived the economic crisis.
"Over the last year, the economic and financial crisis has put our Union before one of its greatest challenges ever ... As I look back at how we have reacted, I believe that we have withstood the test," Mr Barroso told MEPs in his first ever so-called State of the Union address. "Those who predicted the demise of the European Union were proved wrong."
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His remarks come after a threat of sovereign default by eurozone countries such as Greece and Spain threatened to pull apart the single currency in a potentially deadly blow to the 50-year-old European project.
Noting that "our work is not finished," the Portuguese politician put the EU's economic future at the top of his five-point agenda.
He defended the commission's push to regulate EU countries' debt levels despite rising social tension in countries such as Greece, which has seen an outbreak of violent street protests in reaction to EU-and-IMF-imposed cutbacks.
"Unsustainable budgets make us vulnerable. Debt and deficit lead to boom and bust. And they unravel the social safety net. Money that is spent on servicing debt is money that cannot be spent on the social good," he said.
He spoke up for an "ambitious" future budget, saying: "The EU budget is not for Brussels - it is for the people that you represent ... a euro spent at European level gets you more than a euro spent at national level."
With the commission to shortly publish ideas on how to raise extra EU money by, for example, directly taxing financial transactions, the commission chief attacked the culture of "pessimism" and Brussels nay-saying in some EU capitals: "I find it extraordinary that some are already rejecting them [the new budget ideas], without even knowing what they will be."
He set out a shopping list of upcoming economic initiatives.
He said Brussels will propose launching "EU project bonds" together with the European Investment Bank to help finance new infrastructure. He promised an "ambitious Single Market Act" to cut red tape for small businesses, liberalise the energy sector and boost "green collar" jobs.
He said the commission will attack risk-generating financial practices such as big bonuses, credit default swaps and naked short selling. He also promised to overhaul the "byzantine" complexity of the EU budget, in which countries give money with one hand and take it away with another, and to move to a 10-year budgeting period instead of the current seven.
In a message pregnant with references to EU values, Mr Barroso took a swipe at France's controversial policy of expelling Roma.
Without naming Paris, Mr Barroso said, to loud applause: "Everyone in Europe must respect the law, and the governments must respect human rights, including those of minorities. Racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe."
He also lashed out at Iran over the case of a woman sentenced to death for adultery: "I am appalled when I hear that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is sentenced to death by stoning. This is barbaric beyond words."
European Parliament officials tweeted during the speech that around 600 MEPs attended the event despite earlier dropping plans to fine deputies who skipped it.
Mr Barroso's call for EU countries to support the EU's new foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, and her diplomatic service in order to give the EU more clout on the world stage was echoed in the plenary debate following the address.
Senior MEPs began by criticising Ms Ashton for not going to the launch of Middle East peace talks in Washington last week, however. Joseph Daul, the French leader of the centre-right European People's Party did not name the British baroness, but said: "How can we justify that we are not present at the [negotiating] table?"
The leader of the Liberal group, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, chided her for not attending the Barroso speech. "It would be better if she were here," he said.
The State of the Union address, which recalls the US President's annual speech to the houses of Congress, is to be repeated every year.
Coming in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty, which is seen by eurosceptic politicians, such as British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, as a "step towards [an EU] superstate," Mr Barroso's presidential speech has also raised the question of who is the new top man in the Brussels hierarchy.
"I thought Van Rompuy was the President of the EU," a Brussels-based diplomat from one non-EU country told this website, referring to the Belgian President of the European Council.