As European Commission President José Manuel Barroso prepares for what could be his last State of the Union speech in Parliament next week, he has exchanged views with MEPs, exuding what participants say was an air of triumphalism over the Commission's handling of the eurozone crisis.
The exchanges took place over a lunch that Barrosso held with leading MEPs in the Commission’s Berlaymont building ahead of his 11 September speech, EURACTIV has learned.
The Commission President, who spoke hours before taking a flight to St Petersburg for the G20 summit said that, for the first time in several years, he would not have to feel uncomfortable answering questions from world leaders on what the Union does to deal with the Eurozone crisis.
“Even Cristina Kirchner”, the President of Argentina, had in the past given him lessons on how to deal with the crisis, he said.
“I deal with crises 24 hours a day, seven days a week”, Barroso reportedly said.
It is not the first time that Barroso sees MEPs before his “State of the Union” address. His declared objective is to hear their views and possibly take some of them on board. But MEPs suspect that he in fact aims to pacify them, in view of the Parliamentary debate that will follow the address.
A majority of invited MEPs were from the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) of which Barroso is a Vice President. But also present were deputies from the Socialists and Democrats group, as well as from the Liberal ALDE group, the Green/EFA group and the European Conservatives and Reformists, a political group built around the British conservative MEPs.
Barroso, a Maoist militant in his youth, said he didn’t invite “extremists”, referring to the anti-European Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group and the leftist European United Left – Nordic Green left group, who were not represented.
No leaders of political groups were invited, but those present were reportedly among the best speakers of their groups and Barroso complimented them by saying “you are the real leaders of your groups”. He added that he had many occasions to speak to the group leaders, and that he wanted to enlarge his circle of interlocutors in preparation for the “State of the Union” address (see background).
EURACTIV has obtained a list of the MEPs present, but wanted it confirmed by the Commission’s services, which didn’t respond.
Barroso said he wanted to listen, but also made a lengthy speech. His main message was that the Commission had made a fantastic job by quelling a crisis of unprecedented proportions. He reminded his interlocutors that exactly five years ago, the Lehman Brothers holding declared bankruptcy, triggering a world crisis which touched the eurozone more than any other area.
Today the Union had put in place a governance of the eurozone which had restored confidence, Barroso said. He admitted that more work was outstanding, stressing his personal commitment to achieve a system to effectively supervise banks. He illustrated this with the anecdote that he had asked former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero (2004-2008) about the health of a Spanish bank. Zapatero told him that this was “the safest bank in the world”, but it turned out that it soon went bankrupt. Barroso said the Commission wanted to be “sure” what the situation of each and every bank in the European Union was.
The Commission President also said that the biggest outstanding task for the Union was to create jobs. However, unlike for the banking union, he didn’t appear to define this goal as achievable under his term.
A “tour de table” was made and Barroso took notes as MEP spoke about their own views on EU’s present and future. Those ranged from worries about a possible surge of anti-European forces in the next European Parliament, to the need of more “propaganda” of the EU action, as a Polish MEP had put it.
Barroso appeared to accept some of the ideas raised by MEPs, such as the need for a clear distinction between what rules should be set out at national and at EU level. He also appeared to accept the criticism that a lot of EU-bashing takes place because of the push of the EU executive to regulate details, such as the size of olive oil bottles.
Issues such as Syria or the future of EU-Ukraine relations were briefly discussed. Barroso rejected criticism that the Union didn’t have a position on Syria. The news that Armenia had decided to join the Russian-sponsored Customs Union instead of signing a free trade agreement with the EU was mentioned briefly.
Barroso insisted that it would not be his last “State of the Union” speech, and certainly not a “legacy speech”, as he intended to deliver one more next year, after the European elections and before the election of a new Commission. Barroso was not asked about his personal plans, but is widely believed to be eyeing the post of Secretary General of NATO.
A Commission source told EURACTIV that a team of eight people in his cabinet were currently working full time to help him achieve this goal.
Following this publication, a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV this was “pure fantasy”. He made special reference to the mention of eight people in Barroso’s cabinet helping him to get the NATO job as work of fiction.