Wednesday

20th Nov 2019

Interview

Barroso defends his EU legacy, criticises 'anti-foreigner' eurosceptics

  • All in a day's work: Barroso says he made the EU 'united, open and stronger' (Photo: epp.eu)

With two weeks to go until he is formally out of office and, as of yet, with no fixed onward job, Jose Manuel Barroso is a politician concerned with his legacy.

Having spent 10 years as the European Commission president, taking over just after the EU made its continent-changing expansion to the East and ending as it limps out of an equally transformative economic crisis, the 58-year old Portuguese is keen to put his stamp on a narrative that has cast him as lacking vision, weakening his institution and being too fond of austerity.

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"I am sure that any rigorous historian will consider the historic context. I have been the president of the European Commission at its most difficult times ever since the beginning of European integration”, he told a group of journalists in Brussels on Tuesday (14 October).

"I am absolutely sure I have done the best during these 10 years. And this my conscience tells me. And for me this is sufficient”.

In his telling, the commission took more of a backseat role during the height of the financial crisis in order not to add to the "cacophony" at a time that saw save-the-euro policies made on the hoof, only to be called into question before the ink had dried.

"The commission was always ahead of the curve," he says, although others were "probably shouting louder".

Powers to be dreamed of

He argues the EU has emerged stronger from the crisis, equipped with around 40 new pieces of legislation dealing with financial supervision - and a whole lot more power for the European Commission.

"We have powers that our predecessors could not even dream of," he says, highlighting the commission's new right to "reject" draft national budgets.

Calling himself an “institutionalist” he says the commission is an “indispensable body, most prepared to deal with European questions” and should be "treasured".

On the charge that the commission - which together with the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank worked out the terms of loans for bailed-out euro countries - made struggling countries pay too high a social price by forcing them to slash public spending, he is half-apologetic.

He admits that sometimes the "pendulum" swung too much in one direction, but says that "by and large" the approach was the "correct one".

Referring to his fellow citizens from Portugal - which also underwent a harsh austerity programme in return for a loan - he said he "felt how my compatriots suffered".

But the path was nevertheless the right one.

"Would it have been better, for example, to have not asked for these sacrifices? Personally, I think it would have been worse."

The euro hesitants

With the commission under his watch often criticised for being reactive and timid in the face of the crisis, he suggests his role in every-day fire-fighting fell below the radar.

He notes that the "differences in Europe regarding financial matters are not only between Finland and Greece, they start between France and Germany".

Getting a common line from the latter two capitals meant working "discreetly" in the background. He spent "hours" telling some governments they had to be more "generous".

He also indicates that he was among a handful of people who really pushed for the euro to survive in the darkest days of the crisis.

Of a group of chief economists from top banks he called for a meeting in July 2012, only one thought that Greece – the original epicentre of the crisis - would remain in the eurozone.

"These were the people making the opinion in the markets – the so-called markets that we tend to think of as abstract things."

"I am very proud because many governments were not so clear about it [the future of the eurozone]. I had to make the argument in Berlin. In the end they took the right decision."

Anti-foreigner eurosceptics

As Barroso leaves the EU stage - he has indicated he will not take another political post - the 28-state union is in poor shape.

Its economy is stagnating, unemployment is at a record high, there is a wide gulf between the social and economic fortunes of northern and southern states, and EU citizens are disaffected, voting in ever lower percentages in European elections.

But Barroso prefers to look to the bigger picture. The EU emerged from the crisis "united, open [to trade] and stronger".

This situation is fragile, remaining so, in his eyes, because no one makes the case for the EU.

"What for me is really a problem is the lack of vision and courage of the pro-Europeans. We cannot take this project for granted."

Asked about the roots of euroscepticism - a stronger political phenomenon in recent years - he says anti-immigration is its biggest driver, on both the extreme left and right.

Being against a multi-cultural Europe is the "political agenda of the populists tendencies now on the far-right and the far-left. Some of them are hiding their policies and their instincts behind a more articulated anti-European force."

"But the great motive for them is not Brussels bureaucracy, the great motive is 'we don't want foreigners’,” he notes.

“Knowing the devils of our past, I think we should be very cautious about it.”

Looking to the future, he has one piece of advice for Jean-Claude Juncker, his successor and "friend" - not to let the European Commission become partisan. It should be political but should not be politicised, risking the legitimacy of legal and technical decisions.

As for Barroso – aside from writing his memoirs - the immediate future is unclear, although there are rumours about various teaching posts.

But he knows how he would like to be remembered: As someone "who has shown determination and resilience".

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