In his quest to win parliamentary support for a new term at the helm of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso today (3 September) published a 41-page document, contrasting both in length and substance with the short letter which helped him win the blessing of the EU's heads of state and government in June.
Barroso's 'homework', which he had prepared over the summer recess (EurActiv 26/08/09), became public hours after he had sent it to the political groups in the European Parliament, with whom he is expected to discuss his candidacy next week.
Speaking in French, Barroso gave a broad outline of his ambitions before the Brussels press and took a few questions. He insisted that his 'Political guidelines for the next Commission,' as the document is entitled, were "exactly the same" as the two-page letter which he sent to EU leaders, who unanimously gave him their blessing for a second term last June.
'Unemployment worries me'
However, this statement could be challenged on the basis that his five bullet points from June did not even contain the word 'unemployment', which appears nine times, including in headlines, in the new document. The Socialist group had issued a strong warning to Barroso to take account of their group's priorities, among which fighting unemployment ranks highly (EurActiv 14/07/09).
"Unemployment worries me […] the social priority is much more important today than it was five years ago," Barroso told journalists.
It cannot be said that Barroso has disregarded employment during his term. An employment summit took place in Prague last May (EurActiv 08/05/09), which was called to assess the impact of the financial and economic crisis and to identify good practice in mitigating its effects on the labour market. However, due to excessive 'summitry' during the Czech EU Presidency (EurActiv 15/04/09), the employment summit went ahead with few EU leaders in attendance, and social partners refused to sign the final document.
Revisting the Lisbon Strategy
Barroso's 'homework' speaks of revising the current Lisbon Strategy to fit the post-2010 period, turning it into a "strategy for an integrated vision of EU 2020".
The EU's ambitious 'Lisbon Strategy', which aims to make Europe become "the world's most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010," has in many respects failed, according to many authoritative opinions (EurActiv 08/07/09). Indeed, Barroso's letter to the EU leaders does not even mention the strategy.
This time, Barroso calls for "a more convergent and coordinated approach for the reform of Europe's economies through investment in new sources of growth," and, among other things, "securing sound public finances" for the project, and making "a successful exit" from the crisis. Speaking to the press, he said there were two ways in which Europe could proceed: towards "leadership or marginalisation".
A holistic view
Barroso writes that major existing EU initiatives need to be reformulated and bundled together, as they do not offer a holistic view of what Europe wants to achieve. He proposes that the Lisbon Strategy for growth and jobs, the renewed social agenda, the Stability and Growth Pact, competition and state aid policy, the Sustainable Development Strategy, the climate change and energy strategy, the European Research Area, and the Hague and now the Stockholm programmes on justice and home affairs, all be "channelled" to deliver by 2020 the kind of social market economy that he says Europeans are calling for.
Dealing with the crisis
Barroso admits that it will be challenge for the Commission to deal with excessive deficits in most EU member states, which stem from the economic and financial crisis. He writes that the Commission will have to make sure the timing is right for correcting those deficits, "with different deadlines for different member states," including balance of payment support for some EU countries. Overall, it will take time to bring the deficits below the Maastricht threshold of 3%, he admits.
Barroso appears to take one step further in favouring greater economic policy coordination in the EU, a policy championed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had spoken of "a real economic government" for the euro zone (EurActiv 22/10/09), an idea rejected by other EU countries.
"Under my leadership, the Commission will use the full range of possibilities in the Treaty to strengthen the convergence of objectives and the coherence of the effects of economic policy, particularly in the euro area," Barroso writes.
'Digital Agenda' and electricity 'supergrid'
Among more general remarks, several concrete ideas appear in the Barroso paper. He writes that the new Commission will develop a European Digital Agenda, accompanied by a legislative programme, to promote investment in high-speed Internet and to avert the digital divide. Also, he speaks of a new European supergrid for electricity and gas, meeting energy needs in smarter ways in the context of the EU's climate change goals. He also suggests a "domestic security strategy" to better protect citizens, and a 'Youth on the Move' initiative, which could be seen as an "Erasmus for all" programme, allowing all young people to spend a part of their education in other member countries.
Barroso pledges to "examine ways and means to intensify the dialogue between the Commission and the media". But he adds that there should be no illusions about an improvement unless a partnership with national and regional authorities is put in place. Echoing remarks made some time ago by Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker (EurActiv 19/06/08), Barroso says EU leaders should stop taking personal credit for the positive achievements of Europe, and stop blaming the EU for everything they do not like.
Open door for national GMO bans
One particular sentence could be interpreted as a concession to the European Greens, who are particularly hostile to Barroso's reappointment (EurActiv 15/07/09), and who will hold a hearing with the candidate on 9 September. Speaking about fostering diversity, Barroso says he is ready to approve giving member states the freedom to ban GM crops on their territory.
"In an area like GMOs, for example, it should be possible to combine a Community authorisation system, based on science, with freedom for member states to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory," Barroso wrote.
Enlargement on hold
Having praised enlargement as one of the Union's greatest successes and as a matter of personal satisfaction, Barroso indicates that he foresees no big projects in the medium term.
"Enlargement is not an infinite process," Barroso writes, adding that the Union will build on the Eastern Partnership and on the Union for the Mediterranean to develop relations with the countries covered by those initiatives, among which several have identified EU accession as their main political goal.
Partnering with MEPs
Another aspect singled out by Barroso from his programme was the establishment of a "special partnership" between the Commission and the Parliament. He explained that he was proposing that a "question hour" should take place regularly between the Commission president and MEPs, in which legislators could ask any question without deciding upon a specific agenda in advance. He also indicated his readiness to attend meetings between the presidents of the European Parliament's political groups, known as the 'Conference of Presidents'.
His main aim in engaging more with the Parliament, he explained, was to work towards the establishment of a genuine European public space, as for the time being he said there were 28 such "territories" – each member country, plus Brussels and Strasbourg.
Barroso did not answer when asked to single out the failures of his first mandate, saying that he preferred to speak about the future. He repeated that he was proud of what the Commission had accomplished during the last five years, especially by consolidating a Union of 27 members.
In response to Barroso's 'Political guidelines', Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament, said:
"President Barroso has presented an ambitious agenda for the next five years and our group looks forward to discussing it with him at our meeting on Monday (7 September).
"In the European elections the voters clearly rejected the outdated policies of the socialists. The victory of centre-right parties must not only be reflected in the election of a centre-right politician but also the implementation of a centre-right agenda at the commission. Much of the agenda presented by Mr Barroso, such as his focus on completing the single market, is welcome."
"We do not agree with President Barroso on everything, but he is by far the most credible and the only electable candidate in the field. President Barroso's task now is to build a coalition of centre-right parties that want Europe to focus on those areas where it can play a role such as energy security, the financial crisis, the environment and relations with the EU's neighbours, whilst respecting the sovereignty of the nation state," Kaminski concluded.
On behalf of his group, EPP chairman Joseph Daul issued a statement, welcoming Barroso’s model on social market economy.
“The Chairman of the most influential parliamentary force in Europe fully agrees with Mr Barroso's proposals, the basis of which is to defend uniquely European values: transparency, tolerance, respect for others, solidarity and social cohesion, the statement reads.
"These values are reflected in the model of a social market economy which the EPP has always defended. And they have never been more relevant than in the period of crisis we are witnessing, which requires solidarity and increased efforts for those worse off", said Daul.
“The EPP was the only body to propose a candidate to head the European Commission and we are proud of it. We are confident that the vote will be positive," the statement concludes.
The EPP Group would like the debate on the next President of the European Commission to be a substantive debate, a debate of ideas and not just a question of personality.
Journalist Jean Quatremer from the French daily Liberation, who has been a long-standing critic of a Barroso, writes in his blog that his action plan is little more than a listing of good intentions. It is essentially a statement that shows that Barroso has no ideas for the future, and is unwilling to provide genuine leadership. He wants to do more, but he does not tell us how, for fear of displeasing one or several European governments.
Quatremer adds that on macro-economic policies, Barroso is predictably weak and minimalist, focusing mainly on the exit from the crisis. There is nothing in it about euro access strategies for new members, about how to apply to stability and growth pact in the future, about how to deal with private sector imbalances. Barroso seems to believe that to combat unemployment requires policies to improve skills, flexicurity, and all those old hats. We already heard some shocked responses from the European Parliament. It will be interesting to see how that one goes down, Quatremer concludes.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) president John Monks said that given the crisis, Barroso needs to be presssed to be more precise in the solutions he proposes.
"We are calling on the next Commission and the new Parliament to be more assertive on social and employment policy. The excessive laissez-faire liberalism of the past period has contributed to the wreckage of the world and European economies and European workers are paying it with their pay, taxes, and incresingly, their jobs," Monk stated.