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EU politics: Barroso's swan song

2014-05-09 06:28:58

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We weren't imagining it. Barroso did promise back in April last year that the Commission intended to present "the broad contours of its outline for the shape of the future European Union in good time to allow the issue to be debated by European citizens and other stakeholders ahead of the next European Parliament elections in 2014".

I'm not sure, however, two weeks before the elections is "in good time", but yesterday the soon-to-retire José Manuel Durão Barroso attended the Humboldt University in Berlin (pictured) to deliver his swan song. "Considerations on the present and the future of the European Union", was the title. And that, it appears, is all we are going to get.

At the outset, we were expecting this to be the official launch of the treaty process, ready for a kick-off the moment a new parliament had been elected and a new Commission was in place. And that makes the real news.  All the elements of treaty change are there … but not just yet. Mr Barroso wants a "debate" first, which rather stuffs Mr Cameron.

However, at nearly 9,000 words, this is a seriously long speech, almost of the style we'd expect from a Soviet leader, rather than a soon to be ex-Commission president, a man who tells us he has been "actively involved in the process of European integration over the last 30 years".

This is the man who is convinced that the EU needs to develop further, but organically: reform, not revolution; evolution, not counter-revolution. Each step in the process of integration, he says, has led to an EU more interactive, more complex, one with a more profound impact because the challenges were greater, more difficult to grasp, and called for more elaborate forms of cooperation.

Now, we are in the third phase of integration, which is mainly about "the power and influence required to safeguard Europe's peace and prosperity under the conditions of globalisation". Improvement of the governance of the Euro area is "indispensable for the long term sustainability of a single currency" and "further institutional steps of a more political nature may become indispensable", says Barroso.

The Commission president, though, speaks in such great detail that it is very difficult to précis. The devil is in the detail, so in this report I have tried to leave in as much as I can.  

The challenge, he says, is how to make changes "in a way that keeps the integrity of the internal market and of our Union as a whole". A "multiple-speed reinforced cooperation in Europe may become a necessity", he muses. But, he says, "a Europe of multiple classes has been - and must always be - avoided at all costs". So, he says, "flexibility, yes, stratification, no".

In this third phase of European integration, Barroso says we have to recognise that to safeguard peace and prosperity in Europe, "we need an EU that is much more willing to project that power and influence in the world".

After the financial crisis, Barroso admits (and he could hardly do otherwise), "the values and authority of the EU as a global player were put in doubt". Now, he says, "we need to fight back and regain our role and influence". The challenge of globalisation is much broader than economics, Barroso adds: "Our diplomatic approach needs rethinking. Our defence capacities need to be pooled. Our values need to be upheld more than ever".

This, the Commission president says, "demands us to make the internal state of the European Union more stable". He goes on:
We need to address three gaps: a governance gap, since Member States on their own no longer have what it takes to deliver what citizens need while the European institutions still lack part of the equipment to do so; a legitimacy gap, because citizens perceive that decisions are taken at a level too distant from them; and an expectations gap, because people expect more than the political system can deliver.
The man, however, recognises that Member States will not automatically agree the tools to repair these gaps at European level. As a result, he asserts, there is a clear need "to define the communality we want". On this, he says, "depends our role in the world. Stability will only come from a new-found balance at a higher level of communality".

Now Barroso ascends to a higher level of fantasy which reveals that he is not in the real world. The European Union, he says, "has matured into an ever fuller democratic system of governance, notably through the Lisbon Treaty, and one whose impact on people's lives goes far beyond earlier versions. Indeed, we have been building the much closer union that, before, was only an aspiration".

And because the EU has "matured" into this "ever fuller democratic system of governance" that, "mere bureaucratic, technocratic and diplomatic deliberation will no longer do". Even summitry has reached its limits, says Barroso. "We need a new debate, a new dialogue to take this further – a real sense of ownership of the European project both at the national and transnational level".

In order to understand the gravity of what the man is saying, the important thing here is to see things through his eyes. "This is really the heart of the matter", Barroso says: "policy and polity can only function if there is a consensus on the communality agreed, and on the way to get there".

The European project is reflected in a series of treaty discussions since Maastricht that have dominated the debate. Since then, the financial and economic crisis has again raised a series of treaty questions. The constitutional question for Europe "has not been laid to rest", Barroso says.

However, he does realise that there is opposition to his dream. "Those who adhere to the ultra-integrationist paradigm cannot ignore that the vast majority of people do not want European unity to the detriment of the nation state", he says. But then we get the integrationalist propaganda: "Those who have a purely national or intergovernmental perspective cannot ignore that nation states on their own no longer suffice to offer citizens with what they expect".

This, in Barroso's terms, legitimises his pursuit of integration, "Trying to identify a conceptual end point to European integration – one way or the other – is pointless", he says. In other words, Barroso seems to be saying that European integration is a project without end -there is no natural end to it.

Nevertheless, before discussing the technical details of yet another treaty, Barosso wants to establish the "kind of communality" that is necessary, indispensable and unavoidable between the capitals and Brussels. "What is our vision?", he asks. The consensus needs to be made explicit.

In this context, the debate on the future of Europe must be first and foremost "a debate on politics and policies, not one on institutions and treaties". It must deal with "what we want to do together, and why". The political framework has seen it through the crisis but, Barroso argues, "what we have today needs consolidation if it is to endure".

He then adds that, "it is the manner in which we consolidate and advance that should be discussed". There is a lack of ownership in European politics, which institutional adjustments by themselves cannot remedy. "When democratic decision-makers refuse to acknowledge, defend and endorse their common decisions, European legitimacy will always suffer".

Beyond the general doubt of "common citizens", the specific challenge that the EU has been facing recently is "the growing voices of euroscepticism and even Europhobia". Yet "some mainstream political forces have internalised populist arguments rather than countering them", Barroso complains.

Political forces and actors, he says, "must leave their comfort zone". Instead of abandoning the debate to the extremes, they have to recover the initiative and make the positive case for Europe, both at the national and the Union level.

"No treaty change, no institutional engineering can replace the political will for Europe". Such political handicaps need to be addressed above all in order to reinforce both the legitimacy and the effectiveness of Europe, Barroso adds.

To remedy this, we need "leadership, action and ownership for and of the EU's project, understood as part of the political and societal fabric of its Member States", says Barroso. "We need to understand that European policies are no longer foreign policies. European policy is internal policy today in our Member States".

We need to develop a new relationship of cooperation, a "Kooperationsverhältnis" between the Union, its institutions and the Member States. And to achieve this, Barroso says, we need "a reinforced role of the political parties at the Union's level, to aggregate political interests, to structure political priorities and to ensure political coherence throughout", giving shape to "a European public sphere".

This means an agreement between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission for the priorities – positive and negative – of a new legislature. This could also be followed by "a new interinstitutional agreement on better regulation so as to limit excessive administrative burdens".

It is on this basis that more than the unavoidable, surgical adaptations to the Union's current legal framework can be done. In the foreseeable future, Barroso does not believe there will be a European "Philadelphia moment", the creation of a constitution from scratch. The Union way will continue to be "permanent reform" rather than "permanent revolution".

For this to succeed and for each step to be in line with the overall vision behind it, there are a number of principles. These are:

1. Any further development of the Union should be based on the existing treaties and on the Community method. Moving outside this framework would lead to fragmentation, overlapping of structures and ultimately to incoherence and underperformance.

2. A clean-up of the existing over-complexities and contradictions within the treaties and between the treaties and other instruments should precede further additions. Crucially, this means that intergovernmental devices like the European Stability Mechanism and the Fiscal Treaty should be integrated into the treaties as soon as possible.

3. Any new intergovernmental solutions should be considered on an exceptional and transitional basis only in order to avoid accountability and coherence problems.

4. The Union should always aim at evolving as much as possible as a whole, with 28 Member States today. Where deeper integration in other formations is indispensable, namely between the present and the future members of the single currency, it should remain open to all those who are willing to participate. The method of choice for closer integration among a group of Member States is reinforced cooperation as provided for by the treaties.

5. Any further development of the Union should be based on a clear phasing and sequencing, with future moves constructed primarily through the use of all possibilities offered by the treaties as they stand, without reserves not foreseen by these treaties, so that treaty change must only be embraced where secondary legislation is not provided for by the treaties.

6. The pace of development must not be dictated by the most reticent. The speed of Europe must not be the one of the slowest.

7. When another treaty change is deemed necessary, the case for it must be fully argued and debated, including in the public sphere, before it is negotiated and put up for ratification.

As to the single currency, Barroso believes this is meant for all Member States, except for those who have a permanent opt-out. And the truth is, there is only one Member State - the UK - that has such an opt-out. Even Denmark's status is better described as a "possible opt-in". All the others have committed to join the euro.

But, says Barroso, it would be a mistake to develop a logic of convergence into a structure of divergence. More so since the practical experience during the development of the crisis response has shown that the fault lines in the discussions do not lie between the present and the future members of the Euro.

From the Euro Plus Pact to the Fiscal Compact, from the Single Supervisory Mechanism to the Single Resolution Mechanism: whenever the 17 or 18 embarked on a more ambitious project, almost all of the others joined and contributed.

The tendency of some to dream about a refoundation of the Union through a more limited, smaller Euro area than the EU of 28 is not a response to systemic deficiencies or a lack of potential among the 28. It is the expression of "a nostalgia for a cosier arrangement", for a return of the - mistakenly so perceived - comfort of the smaller, less difficult and supposedly more coherent times of more intimate integration. But time waits for no one, and "history has moved on".

Barroso then turns to the relationship between the EU and the UK. He "passionately believes" that Europe is stronger with the UK as its member, and that the UK "is stronger as a member of the EU than on its own". But he acknowledges that for historical, geopolitical and economic reasons, "the case of the UK may be seen as a special one".

Precisely because of this, Barroso thinks it would be a mistake to transform an exception for the UK into a rule for everybody else. We can, and should, he says, "find ways to cater to the UK's specificity", inasmuch as this does not threaten the Union's overall coherence. But we should not confound this specificity with an overall situation of the Union.

Based on these principles, five policy fields stand out that "particularly demand debate, action and decision", all to provide "concrete institutional improvements in the years to come". Barroso wants: the deepening of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), in line with the Commission's blueprint;  more effective external representation of the Union; strengthening of Union values and citizenship; a better regulatory division of labour; and  the need to perfect "our" political union.

For the deepening of the EMU, the Commission's Blueprint for a Deep and Genuine Economic and Monetary Union remains the valid vision. It combines substantial ambition with appropriate sequencing. First, the reformed economic governance needs to be fully implemented.

Once this has been achieved, the gradual development of a fiscal capacity at the level of the euro area, complemented by additional coordination of tax policy and labour markets, should be contemplated. Such a development, "which will ultimately require treaty changes", must be accompanied by "commensurate democratic legitimacy and accountability".

A more "fiscal-federal" approach within the euro area must involve not only the present members of the single currency. It must remain open to all future and potential members and respect the integrity of the single market and of the policies conducted by the Union as a whole.

More effective external representation requires a cooperative division of labour between the Union's and the Member States' office-holders. The present track record of cooperation between the presidents of the European Council and of the Commission provides useful guidance in this respect.

The High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission must be provided with effective political deputies from both the Commission and the Council. The potential of joint external representation must be used to the full.

The combination of foreign policy with the external aspects of the internal policies provides the Union with leverage in the world. The first steps towards a more joined-up security and defence policy must be followed up. Furthermore, there must be a more coherent external representation of the Euro Area in international financial institutions.

The strengthening of the Union's values and citizenship, says Barroso, requires "the full respect and implementation of the rule of law and the Union's rights, guarantees and freedoms". Instruments like the fundamental rights check in legislative impact assessments and the Commission's "safeguard of the rule of law framework" need to consolidated, he says.

And, in a direct rebuff of Cameron's ambitions, Barroso declares: "The fight against abuse of Union rights, notably the right to free movement, can and must be addressed through secondary legislation, not through questioning the principle".

Regarding regulatory division of labour, the starting point must be the recognition that the Union's Member States are not less regulated than the Union itself. Barosso argues that the real driver of EU regulation is the need to make the detailed regulations of 28 Member States compatible with each other.

The question of how to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things is therefore not so much one of negative or positive lists for fields of action, but rather the intensity and intrusiveness of specific initiatives. This is best addressed through a new inter-institutional agreement on better law-making.

Ultimately, it is a question of a periodical review of the political consensus on political priorities, which could be helped by the introduction of "sunset clauses" or a principle of "legislative discontinuity" at the change of a European Parliament.

Regarding the need to perfect the political union and enhance the "democratic legitimacy" that should underpin what Barroso calls "Europe 3.0", this should, "be based on the Community method as the system of checks, balances and equity between the institutions and the Member States that offers the best starting point for further supranational democracy".

Such "supranational democracy", he declares, "must not be constructed as a multi-level combination of vetoes, but rather as a system of accountability at the level where executive decisions are taken".

Inasmuch as executive decisions are taken by the Commission, it is the European legislature, hence the European Parliament and – in its legislative functions - the Council that need to ensure democratic legitimacy and accountability.

Conversely, it falls to national parliaments to ensure the legitimacy and accountability of decisions taken at the level of the Member States, including the action of Member States in the Council. The relations between national parliaments and the European Parliament should also be a privileged part of the "Kooperationsverhältnis" that he is advocating.

To this effect, there should be a "reformed Commission" as the Union's executive, including the Union's treasury function. It would be responsible to a bicameral legislature composed of the European Parliament and the Council.

In order to ensure the right balance between the political creation and the functional independence of the Commission, the present way of negative censure for the Commission should be replaced by a mechanism of constructive censure: the European Commission only falls in case the absolute majority of the European Parliament proposes another President for the European Commission.

Then, in the medium term, the office of the Vice-President of the Commission responsible for economic and monetary affairs and the euro could be merged with the office of the President of the Eurogroup. Merging the office of the President of the European Commission with the office of the President of the European Council, would undoubtedly be a question for the longer term.

It's the politics that can make this possible or not, followed afterwards by institutional developments, and not the other way around. European integration will always be a step-by-step process.

The EU, in Barroso's view, remains the "most visionary project in recent history". Its energy and attraction is striking. Its adaptability is unprecedented. But only if certain conditions are met: when leadership is unambiguous, when cooperation reaches new levels of maturity, and when the politics of Europe are on the offensive.

That is what's at stake in the coming European elections, the Commission president says. They are the best possible moment to stand up for what has been achieved and to build a consensus around what needs to be done, to speak up for Europe as it really is and advocate a vision of what Europe could be.

Coming to his peroration, Barroso declares that the Commission has worked to preserve Europe's unity, to keep it open and to make it stronger. "There is a lot to build on from here", he concludes. "A unique project. A necessary project. A project to be proud of". Let us undertake "la réforme de tous les jours". Let us continue the work, says Barroso, "with what one of my predecessors, François-Xavier Ortoli, called 'le courage de chaque jour'".

And that's as far as it goes. I've got the length down to about a third of the original. If I go further, I might lose some of the essential sense of the speech. Thus, for a piece that is already too long, I will save the analysis for another post, later today.