Commission President José Manuel Barroso said yesterday (12 September) that he came up with the idea that European political parties present their candidate for the top EU job at the European Parliament elections in 2014, and regretted that little progress had been made in this direction.
Barroso said there was a risk that the campaign would take place without a clear public debate between representatives of the different political forces competing with the role of Commission president. He insisted on the role he was playing in changing the system.
“It was me who last year proposed this idea in my State of the Union speech, which I think is a contribution to a certain Europeanisation of the elections. This would allow to European political parties, which are still structures in development […] to stabilise their programs and to set a platform around personalities,” Barroso said.
Barroso was speaking to reporters as part of a Commission communication effort to highlight the messages of this year’s state of the union address he delivered in the European Parliament on Wednesday (11 September).
The major European political families are expected to elect soon their Commission president candidate in an effort to put a “face” on the EU elections next May.
Barroso said that he had no illusion that this change would be sufficient to transform the European elections into “a real European event”, but added it would be a “step in the right direction."
The current Commission president stressed his desire for common candidates among the EU countries, preventing the European elections from becoming an amalgam of 28 national campaigns, as had happened in previous elections. Common candidates would give a more European feel to the democratic exercise, he added.
“To my knowledge, no party has designated candidates," Barroso said, adding that he would advise them to do so. Barroso said that the timing of selecting candidates was a matter of political strategy and also depended on the availability of candidates who currently occupy other positions which are incompatible with political posturing.
Barroso also said it would be “interesting” if the candidates of the European political parties held televised debates similar to those before national elections. But he seemed to exclude anti-Europeans from the scheme.
“Why not organise a debate, at least among the main political forces in Europe? You saw the German election campaign, and the moment which most affected public opinion was the debate between the two candidates”, he said, referring to the televised debate between CDU’s Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat rival Peer Steinbrück.
Barroso remained non-committal over whether he would stand again for the Commission top job.
“You know that my mandate ends in October next year. One year in politics is eternity. So I concentrate on my work. One think I can say is that two mandates [as Commission President], ten years, this is already not bad in term of responsibilities.”
Barroso's laying claim to the idea of putting a "face" on the European elections will likely rile the Party of European Socialists, who floated the suggestion in 2010.
The Socialists decided in a November 2011 PES congress in Brussels that they would name a candidate for Commission president through internal primaries before January 2014 in each of the national member parties and organisations. But the PES has since backtracked on holding primaries.
For the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Barroso is a vice president, the situation is even more unclear. Another EPP vice president, Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who is not himself a candidate, openly criticised the idea of holding direct elections for the EU's top jobs.
The Liberal ALDE political party said it would dicuss candidates at the party’s pre-summit meeting at the margins of the 19-20 December European Council, and that if more than two emerged, they would hold a vote in spring.
The Green party announced that they would elect through primaries not one but two candidates for the EU elections, further confusing the picture.
The 2014 elections – the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty – will allow the Parliament to elect the president of the Commission on the basis of a proposal by the European Council taking into account the results of the European elections (see Article 17.7 of the Treaty on European Union). The Lisbon Treaty however says nothing about the direct election of the European Commission president.
Attack on Callanan ‘not meant at UK’
Barroso appeared to backtrack on his what came across as an undiplomatic warning to British Conservatives that they risked losing out to the eurosceptic UKIP party in the next British elections. During the debate after the state of the union speech, Barroso fired the quip at Conservative Tory MEP Martin Callanan, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament.
Callanan accused the Commission of representing the "vested interests of the European District in Brussels not the people of Europe". Barroso replied with unusual bluntness, saying that the British Conservatives were merely copying UKIP in their eurosceptic stance and may therefore lose out at the upcoming British elections as a result.
Yesterday, Barroso sought to soften the dig at Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives.
“What I said there was not meant specifically at the UK situation. I’ve been saying that in other situations, for example in France, and also in Germany, in Greece, I’ve been saying this. I’ve been saying that if the pro-Europeans and those who have a constructive position, and those who have a government responsibility, if they give up and try to follow the pressure of the clear Europhobes, of anti-European forces, then people may prefer the original to the copy,” Barroso said.
Asked by EURACTIV if Barroso conveyed the same message to his EPP group, whose members have frequently echoed those anti-European messages, Barroso said he was delivering his warning “to everybody”.
“I said on many occasions to the main national parties, look, if you are in the business of Europe, don’t forget that in the business of criticising Europe there are others who are much better than you.”
Afraid of the ‘F’ word?
Asked by EURACTIV why he sidestepped the key word in last year's state of the union, “federalism”, and whether this was linked to the sensitivities in the context of the upcoming German elections, Barroso said that since last year, the Commission had tabled what he called a "little-noticed" document, a Blueprint for a Deep and Genuine Economic and Monetary Union. He described this as a “roadmap for that objective”.
“We are working on that and I’ve not changed my position about this. I believe that a political union requires a federative approach. That means not a centralised super-state, but it is a democratic association of the states of the European Union, including of course the representation of the citizens,” Barroso said.