Socialists: ‘Weathervane’ Barroso signals Europe’s left turn

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Commission President José Manuel Barroso is a 'weathervane' who is embracing Socialistic positions to tackle the eurozone crisis because he sniffs that "three big EU countries are turning to the left", prominent Socialists said yesterday (4 October).

Three former Social Democrat Prime ministers and a prominent Socialist member of the Belgian government agreed that Barroso's recent State of the Union speech contained ideas inspired by Europe's left.

Former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, former Austrian PM Alfred Gusenbauer and former Danish PM Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, who is also President of the Party of European Socialists PES, spoke to a Brussels audience alongside Paul Magnette, Belgium's Socialist minister of energy in the caretaker government.

In his speech delivered on 28 September in Strasbourg, Barroso advocated a Financial Transaction Tax (see background), one of the key campaigning issues of the socialists.

In his speech, Barroso also advocated a mild form of Eurobonds, called 'stability bonds', which would not require a treaty change. He announced that the EU executive would make specific proposals in the coming weeks on the matter.

Eurobonds were strongly advocated by Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister and leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. They are strongly supported by the European centre-left, but are opposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Barroso is also pushing for a new EU budget for 2014-2020 of €1 trillion, compared to the current €976 billion. This represents a 4.8% increase, which is beyond the average 2% inflation recorded in the last decade.

Many centre-right heads of state and government want the budget to be cut, to match national austerity budgets during the economic crisis. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said: "If austerity is the answer to the crisis, then Europe will end in disaster."

EURACTIV asked the centre-left leaders, who were speaking in the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) at a gathering organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, if they were comfortable with Barroso advocating the same ideas which they themselves presented for coming out of the crisis.

Tables to turn

Former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema replied that Barroso’s turnaround was "a sign of political change in Europe".

"In three big EU countries the change is near," D'Alema said. He did not elaborate before the audience, but later told EURACTIV that he was optimistic about a Socialist victory in the presidential elections in France next May, and about a Red-Green coalition replacing the current government in Germany. The next federal elections in Germany are expected to be held in September or October 2013.

In Italy, D’Alema believed that early elections to oust PM Silvio Berlusconi would lead to a coalition government with a leading role for the Partito Democratico, the social democratic party of Italy, whom the polls are giving a substantial lead over Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà.

Paul Magnette, who is also a ULB professor, called Barroso a "weathervane", as he is seen as someone who has made huge shifts of opinion during his political career.

Barroso's background reads like a political rollercoaster. Starting out as a Maoist youth leader following the 1974 democratic revolution in his native Portugal, Barroso reached the other extreme when as prime minister he hosted a crucial pro-war meeting in the Azores on 16 March 2003, attended by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain's José Maria Aznar. The Iraq invasion began on 20 March, four days after the Azores meeting.

Magnette agreed with d'Alema that Barroso's apparent "progressive evolution" was a sign of deep political change to come.

But the centre-left leaders also warned that Barroso's proposals had to be examined in detail. Gusenbauer said that PES wants a general FTT applicable immediately, while the centre-right was keen on allowing "loopholes" and for delaying the measure until 2014.

Rasmussen questioned the value of waiting for 2014 until Barroso's mandate has expired. He added that Barrosos's proposals may look 'progressive' at first sight, but in fact were 'too little, too late'.

Rasmussen also expressed satisfaction that Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social democrats in his native Denmark, had become the country's first female Prime Minister following the elections last September. The Social Democrats had been the largest opposition party since 2001, when they lost power after eight years of his premiership.

Denmark was praised by the Commission yesterday (4 October) for shelving the previous centre-right government's policy of re-introducing border controls. 

In his annual "State of the Union" speech on 28 September, Commission President José Manuel Barroso admitted that the EU was confronted with the most serious crisis of confidence in its history and outlined proposals for moving toward an economic union, calling EU leaders to support further integration.

Populist responses put in jeopardy the biggest achievements of the European Union: the euro, the single market, even the freedom of movement, he stated. If the bloc does not move toward greater integration, it risks fragmentation, the Commission President warned.

However difficult, Barroso said that solutions to the crisis existed. He stated that Greece will remain member of the euro area and that that The Commission would make a proposal for a unified external representation of the euro area.

He also said that the Commission will present options for introducing so-called 'stability bonds' in the coming weeks. Such issuance of joint debt will be accompanied by rules that reward those who play by the rules, and deters those who don't, he added.

Last but not least, Barroso announced that the Commission had also adopted today a proposal for a Financial Transaction Tax, which according to him would generate a revenue of over €55 billion a year (more on the FTT).  However, this proposal was decried by the EU's leading employers' organization, BusinessEurope.

The three largest political groups made statements largely supportive of Barroso.

  • 6 May 2012: Second round of French elections;
  • Sep. or Oct. 2013: Federal elections to be held in Germany.

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