Monday, 14 September 2009

News from nowhere - Stop Barroso?

Who will be the next President of the European Commission? While this question may not occupy the collective mind of a continent more pressed with unemployment and the credit crunch, it's certainly set the tongues wagging in the corridors of European power. What should have been a cakewalk for the ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso (already President for these past five years) - he was unanimously reappointed by the 27 Member State Governments in the Council - has suddenly turned into a rather anxious ratification process in the European Parliament, due to the obstinate resistance of several of the European Parliament political groups.

They have already scored one success: they postponed the vote which was supposed to take place in July until the autumn. Now, this week in Strasbourg, the critical vote will take place: Barroso must win a majority to secure his position for the next five years, and to become the first President to be re-elected since the great Jacques Delores.

Why the brouhaha? Those opposing Barroso (the Socialists, the Greens, the Left and most of the Liberals) have a solid argument: "Top politicians should not be reappointed without taking stock of their performance." Too often the selection of (technically speaking) the most powerful person in the EU is reduced to a game of Buggins's Turn: the key is to rotate between a conservative from a small country and a socialist from a large country, a la the process I described last time. So Jacques Delores (France, Socialist) was followed by Jacques Santer (Luxembourg, Christian Democrat), Romano Prodi (Italy, Democrat) and Barroso (Portugal, Christian Democrat - he referred to himself as not a conservative but a "centre right democrat").

This, to put it mildly, does not always produce optimal results: the Santer Commission was sacked in 1999 for financial corruption. Furthermore, this is the election of the person driving the European policy agenda for the next half decade: surely there should be a serious democratic debate before the person is chosen? Barroso's "election manifesto" is dull, unimaginative, and tries to be all things to all men. For many MEPs, Barroso simply does not measure up to their expectations.

The drive against Barroso has been led mainly by two major parliamentary characters: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-President of the Greens and formerly of 1968 Paris barricade fame, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, and ex-Belgian Prime Minister. They have two main arguments. The first, mainly pushed by Cohn-Bendit, is that Barroso has been too right wing: he has pushed the single market, economic liberalisation agenda ahead of any action on the environment and social justice.

According to the "Stop Barroso" website, "Barroso has misappropriate the "Better Regulation" agenda to promote deregulation is the name of competitiveness...Overstepping the Commission's remit, Barroso is trying to force through authorisation of GM crop varieties in the EU...a refocusing of the Lisbon Strategy orientated exclusively at a short sighted growth and job approach, putting the environment in the waiting room..." Barroso has promoted nuclear power, refused for years to regulate financial markets, and tried to force through privatisation of public services through the Services Directive. With the financial and climate crises in full swing, Barroso's response has been tepid at best and outright negligent at worst.

The second argument accuses Barroso, not for what he has done, but for what he has not done. For politicians like Verhofstadt, the European Union simply has not done enough under Barroso's stewardship to tackle the problems of our time and to assert its power in the world: instead, Barroso has been the lackey of the Member States, and has thus allowed Europe to fragment and lose focus. As ALDE declare:

"The European Union faces a choice. Either it takes a step backwards, becomes a bureaucratic and loose confederation of diverging countries and gives up being an international heavyweight, or we decide to move forward, to become a stronger union speaking with one voice in the world, convinced of our European values and standards."

For Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt, this means more common European policies: a common European recovery plan, common defence policies, even a common foreign policy. Barroso is simply not up to this task: Europe needs a strong leader independent of the Member States. The implications for the balance of power in Europe are obvious and a little ominous.

Will they succeed? Probably not. The "Stop Barroso" brigade always faced an uphill battle, against the unanimous assent of the Member States, and the support for Barroso by the right wing political groups. They have also made a number of errors. First, they did not put forward an alternative candidate. It is a little difficult to emphasise Barroso's negative qualities when there is no one to compare him to, and the possibility exists that a replacement for Barroso may be worse.

Second, lay the focus, not on the merits of the argument per se, but on procedure: specifically whether to vote on Barroso under the Treaty of Nice or (if it passes) Lisbon. This may have been a useful delaying tactic, but it smothers the debate in fiendish complexity and makes it completely inaccessible to the average European. It has also resulted in splits within the "Stop Barroso" camp on the correct line to take on procedure, which has actually thrown many Liberals back into Barroso's big tent.

Finally, it is incorrect to pin all the ills in today's EU on one man. The structure of the EU makes it inevitable that the President of the Commission will to a certain extent be the errand boy of the Member States, who do after all have to approve all legislation. There is no point in the President pushing an agenda which will be rejected by the nations and regions, which are the components of the EU. If the agenda of the EU leans right, that is probably because most of the current governments in Europe are right wing, not because of Barroso. We have a Europe of the nations, not a European super state (whatever the Daily Mail may say): most people want it this way, and replacing one man will not change it.

The case against Barroso can be seen here.

Barroso's platform can be seen here.

Daniel Wylie

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