The central issue for the new President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, is whether he will be able to regain for the Commission the central role in the construction of Europe that it had in the past, and thereby reverse the tendency towards a ‘loss of authority’ that both Jacques Santer and Romano Prodi were unable to put a stop to.
A prime task ahead for the new President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, will be for the Commission to regain a central role in the construction of Europe. This is crucial if it is to be an element of balance within the Union, ensuring the solidarity and dual legitimacy of states and citizens. The Commission must ensure that it has the strong support of all member states, not only of the Franco-German axis but also of the remaining members, in order to generate the solid majorities that are no longer automatically produced as a result of the agreement between Paris and Berlin, as they once were. Barroso will also have to balance the EU’s relations with the US, aiming to make Europe a counterpoint and not a counter-power. It remains to be seen how Europe can be a counterpoint without becoming a counter-power. But perhaps the greatest challenge will be the ratification of the European Constitution in forthcoming national referenda. A ‘no’ from a single country would be enough to condemn to failure the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty and generate a political crisis.
The first priority of the new Commission should be the Commission itself. It must be restored to its place as the guarantor of the Community project. The central issue at stake is whether José Manuel Durão Barroso can regain for the Commission the central role in the construction of Europe that it had in the past, and thereby reverse the tendency towards a ‘loss of authority’ or increasing weakness to which neither Jacques Santer nor Romano Prodi were able to put a stop to. At a first glance, the image of the chosen candidate, who embodied the ‘lowest common denominator’, suggests that this will not be the case. But Barroso must prove wrong those who see him as a weak candidate for the good of Europe. This is something he began to do as he put together the new Commission: he now needs to show that he has formed a strong Commission. Over the coming years, there will be many occasions on which to test the capacity of the new Commission, including the advent of constitutional referenda, financial negotiations for 2007-13, and the remaking of trans-Atlantic relations. Barroso’s view of Europe is in many ways suited to this new context. However, his success will depend not only on how firmly he defends his convictions, but also on the behaviour of member states. Barroso’s career is very much tied up with the European integration of Portugal and his view of Europe reflects that particular experience. Barroso is a true Europeanist, but he is also a committed Atlanticist.
Barroso’s vision of Europe is not that of a European federalist. Indeed, there are few Portuguese who hold that view of Europe. Rather, he supports what former Prime Minister António Guterres called ‘true federalism’. This ‘new way of thinking’ about integration emerged between 1992 and the nomination of Durão Barroso in response to concerns about the place of states in the Union and as a reflection on the Portuguese experience. ‘True’ federalism is not about supporting the creation of a European federal super state along the lines of the United States of America; rather, it is a model of governance based on solidarity and the dual legitimacy of states and citizens (the Lisbon Strategy is a product of that vision). Crucially, on this view the Commission has a central role to play as a balancing actor within the Union. In Portugal it is commonly said that the Commission is the best ally of the small states.
An Unlikely Atlanticism
Barroso’s vision of foreign policy –he was Foreign Affairs Minister under the Cavaco Silva government– is that a European perspective is not incompatible with a committed Atlanticism. He is what many Portuguese call a Euro-Atlanticist. Euro-Atlanticism was not put to the test until Europeans were forced to choose between solidarity with other member states and siding with the US, as happened during the Bush administration and with the deployment of a divisive rhetoric about an ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe. Barroso once said that Europe should ‘act as a counterpoint, not a counter-power, to the Americans’. The Iraq war has shown that the counterpoint theory is insufficient to put a stop to neo-conservative adventures; it has also shown that automatic alignment à la Tony Blair is no way to gain influence over the course of events. It remains to be seen how Europe can be a counterpoint without becoming a counter-power. What is not in doubt is that the first precondition for European influence is its unity.
Governments must play the central role here, but patient work by the Commission with the great dossiers of regionalism and interregional relations, the neighbourhood policy, and the EU-MERCOSUR agreement, is also essential. These were the tasks that affirmed the possibility of returning to the methods of global governance that marked the 1990s. These are infinitely more effective than unilateralism as a way to guarantee international security and combat terrorism. Durão Barroso’s diplomatic experience can play an important role in this regard, in tandem with the Presidency and the future Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Union, who will be the Vice-president of the Commission as well. However, Barroso’s labours will be veritably Herculean if John Kerry loses the US presidential elections.
A New European Balance
The nomination of Barroso for President of the Commission –this is the first time that the job has been given to someone that is not from a founding member state– is a sign of the deep changes that have taken place in the Union since the most recent enlargement. The Commission must ensure that it has the strong support of member states, notably from the Franco-German axis –something that Jacques Delors achieved with Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand– and then widen that consensus to other countries, in order to generate the solid majorities that are no longer automatically produced as a result of the agreement between Paris and Berlin as they once were. This is an arduous task that will be facilitated by the internal cohesion of the Commission or its capacity to act as a unit and not as a set of rival feudal powers. It is worth repeating that while the Commission has the right of initiative decisions are essentially adopted by governments, in the Council, and by the European Parliament, through co-decision.
José Manuel Durão Barroso is right to emphasise the political nature of his new job. It is worth remembering that the European elections harshly punished most governments, and confirmed the disappointment of the public with current policies –especially economic– which are not just national. Governments were punished because it is the market that spearheads European integration through the instrument of the single currency. There is no corresponding social and economic policy to minimise the most nefarious effects of crises. It is in these difficult circumstances that the ratification of the European Constitution will be subject to referenda, and in some cases –as in France and the UK– they will be highly risky ventures for the future of the Union. The spectre of Maastricht hangs over Europe once again: at that time, the French ‘yes’ was a very close call, and the Danish ‘no’ temporarily won the day. Now, a ‘no’ from a single country would be enough to condemn to failure the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty and generate a political crisis.
Note: Durão Barroso’s words cited here are culled from an interview with the author about Barroso’s vision of the European Union, which was published in O Mundo em Portugues (21/VI/2001). For an English translation of the interview, see www.ieei.pt.
Álvaro de Vasconcelos
Director of Portugal’s Instituto de Estudos Estratégicos e Internacionais