Barroso bows out as commission president leaving mixed legacy
Under his watch the euro zone survived, but austerity is back as subject of debate
Outgoing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso attends the review of the Barroso II commission at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
The former Portuguese prime minister’s tenure as European Commission president had coincided with a period of “exceptional and challenging times”, he said, describing the last decade as “10 years of crisis”.
While the commission had been preoccupied in his early years with the various treaty changes, not least the difficulties surrounding the Irish votes on Nice and Lisbon, the main challenge had been the euro zone crisis.
Inevitably- the Barroso commission will be associated with the handling of the sovereign debt crisis, a devastation that brought the euro area close to dissolution.
Barroso and his commission – also heavily influenced by the input of its secretary general Catherine Day – rigidly adopted a rules-based policy of fiscal consolidation in its response to the financial crisis.
Mr Barroso defended his policy yesterday, pointing out – quite rightly – that the euro zone had succeeded in staying together despite its detractors. He also noted that it was national supervisors, rather than Europe, that had caused certain elements of the crisis.
These arguments may have been acceptable 18 months ago when the European economy appeared to be turning the corner, emerging from recession in the second quarter of 2013, but the recent economic slowdown has again refocused debate on the euro zone’s policy of austerity.
Falling inflation, continuing high levels of unemployment and a slowdown in growth in countries such as France, Italy and even Germany mean Barroso’s economic legacy has left as many questions as answers.
Yesterday debate about Europe’s future economic policy dominated discussion at the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Both France and Italy are continuing to press Berlin to allow greater flexibility in the application of the Stability and Growth Pact rules, having indicated they will both flout the rules in their 2015 budgets.
Barroso also used the final days of his tenure to intervene in the debate over a possible British referendum on EU membership. Both Barroso and Day have previously said Britain’s pledge to renegotiate EU membership would be likely to face resistance.
During two days of interviews in London this week, including a speech at Chatham House, Barroso said it would be a “historic mistake” if Britain were to alienate allies in central and eastern Europe on immigration, clarifying that changes to the EU’s freedom of movement rules were not permissible in the EU treaty. His comments have left David Cameron facing accusations of bowing to the threat of Ukip by promising the electorate something undeliverable.
In perhaps a bigger blow to Tory pride, Barroso – who negotiated with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – mused that the Iron Lady would never have surrendered to Ukip, noting in the Daily Telegraph that she had been a champion of the free market.