State of the European Union Speech: Something is Terribly Wrong

, by Joan Marc Simon

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

State of the European Union Speech: Something is Terribly Wrong

Something is terribly wrong when pro-Europeans join the Eurosceptics at making fun of the President of the European Commission. Something is terribly wrong when in the toughest times since WWII we fight the crisis with nothing else but words. Something is terribly wrong when in any parliament the deputies have to get economic incentives to go listen the president of their executive…

When listening to the State of the European Union speech delivered by J.M. Barroso on Tuesday 7th September it was confirmed over and over that yes: something is terribly wrong with the European Union. And guess what? It is not Barroso. I wish I could join the pro-Europeans and the Eurosceptics in lapidating the President of the Commission for being undemocratic, lacking ideas, boring, non-delivering, fake, powerless, etc. But that would be too easy. Plus it won’t help much.

Lacking leadership and tools

The reason why nobody wanted to show up in the hemicycle to listen to Barroso’s State of the Union speech is not because they despise Barroso as a person; it is just because everybody knows that the emperor is not only naked but also incapable to deliver any of the reforms that the EU needs to get out of the crisis. He just does not have the power. Even if Barroso would have the personality of Obama that would not make him more attractive or powerful. It is a dead end.

The European Commission has done wonders during the last 60 years; the community system has been one of the most important and for sure most revolutionary pillars of the European project. Yet the times we live in prove that we need more than the current European Commission to reverse the decline of our continent.

Brussels is the place where the member-states come to sit around the table to coordinate national responses to the crisis, not where the European response can be crafted.

The EU needs leadership as much as it needs the tools to act. Currently it has neither of them. 2010 has shown that the “European” leadership is in Berlin and the tools are in the EU capitals. Brussels is the place where the member-states come to sit around the table to coordinate national responses to the crisis, not where the European response can be crafted. The European Commission has become a “privileged spectator” of the dismantling of the European dream. In the best cases it coordinates and facilitates the meetings but it can never decide. Let us not forget that the only participant in the negotiations looking after the European interest is the European Commission, the other participants are there to protect the interests of their national citizens. In 2010 we have observed how the European interest has never prevailed over the national interest. And the European citizens (who happen to be also citizens of a member state) are paying the price for it.

The way forward

The only way forward to avoid further decline is to reform the governance of the Union. This can be unpopular and insurmountable, yet it is necessary. If we want that deputies turn up to listen to the State of the Union speech we need to have a President of the European Executive speaking to his electorate; the European citizens, presenting the European solution to the crisis with the right tools; EU budget and EU policies, and reassuring citizens and member states about his commitment because he can deliver.

Currently the President of the Commission is just the minimum common denominator of the will of the leaders from the member states. We have seen how in times of crisis he has been pushed aside to let Merkels and Sarkozys run the show. This needs to be fixed by, firstly, giving the president of the European executive the backing from the European citizens so that he has the responsibility and the legitimacy to impose the European interest over the national interest. And secondly, the European executive should have the tools to act and this means having an European budget big enough to have an impact.

Power stems from the people and from the money. Barroso has neither of them; hence he gets little respect.

These are difficult times for the EU, and difficult times require bold changes lead by courage and vision. The governance of the EU should come out of the crisis fully refurbished; from the current weak and compromising European Commission we will need to obtain a strong European executive that should resemble as much as possible to a government. A government with a federal budget to implement policies and backed by the European citizens.

How to empower the president of the European Commission so that he can deliver?

Firstly by legitimising the position in the eyes of the European citizens. Barroso was selected and not elected. The EU needs to turn the European Parliament elections into European elections in which the different European parties run at European level with a head of the list who, if achieving the majority, should preside the European Commission and maybe also the European Union. The current double-headed system of the EU, i.e. Barroso & Van Rompuy, is clearly not helping to identify the EU leadership and there is a need to debate whether the positions should be merged –it wouldn’t require treaty changes-.

Secondly, by building a real European budget based on own resources which could fill the empty words of the state of the union speech. The EU budget would not be an added burden on the EU citizens, just a more efficient allocation of expenditure. The new budget would add to the current insignificant EU own resources with Eurobonds – as suggested by the Commission - but also of taxes on speculative capital transactions and taxes on carbon, leaving the tax on labour to the member states.

Unfortunately, in order to allow the reform of both the European electoral law and the creation of European taxes the EU needs to unanimity from its member states. Once again the old blockade that has stopped the union since its very beginning.

European governance needs a European government

What would have happened if the state of the union speech would have been delivered by chancellor Merkel? After all she has played a more important role than anyone else in Europe on the EU response to the crisis -she has the power and the money-… wouldn’t both the pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics join again their critics in saying that Europe is taken over by one or two member states and this is democratically unacceptable? Well, this is what 2010 has taught to those who still refused to see: Europe is run by a few EU capitals –not Brussels-.

For all this, dear pro-Europeans and euro-sceptics, Barroso is not the problem but just one more of the symptoms of a much larger European problem.

What is terribly wrong with Europe is that its member-states and citizens refuse to accept that, like it or not, European governance needs a European government. The impact of this on the national sovereignties is scaring everybody from moving forward; yet in view of latest developments we can confirm that the decision to be taken is not whether member states should be giving away more sovereignty to the EU but rather whether they prefer that their sovereignty is taken away by force -i.e. Greek crisis- or with their consent and participation –i.e. Coal and Steel Community-.

Image: José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President; photo: BLOOMBERG, source: Google Images

Your comments
  • On 14 September 2010 at 14:05, by Cédric Replying to: State of the European Union Speech: Something is Terribly Wrong

    Very good article.

    About the speech:

    I totally agree that the Barroso-bashing we experienced around the State of the Union speech was useless. Sure, the EU is not the US and Barroso is not a US-president. But what did we expect? Choosing the name “State of the Union speech” was the best idea they have had for a long time to make EU communication work. What title would have been more appropriate ? “Programmatic debate about the 2011 priorities under the 2020 strategy”? Using buzz words is how politics works in reality, all good politicians do that!

    Barroso “just does not have the power”

    However, I do not share your opinion that Barroso “just does not have the power”. That’s false. Barroso has plenty of power.

    When France started to lose its head about Roma this summer, he could have just stated that he would not accept mass expulsion of Roma, and that would have simply never happened. Instead, he made two or three “careful” statements and lingered on in order let France understand: “go ahead we won’t disturb you”. Check the timing of the crisis.

    Delors did not have more power than Barroso, on the contrary, but he achieved far more (Schengen, Single Act, Euro) merely because he dared to take the initiative without having a consensus in the Council. He made concrete proposals even though somme bigger Member states would not join the project. That’s exactly what Barroso wouldn’t do. If Barroso had been in charge in 1985-95, we would still be waiting at the customs and juggling with 27 currencies!

    So, the reason why Barroso doesn’t deliver is not because he doesn’t have power, but because “less regulation” is his only mandate. He was recruited in 2004 for his ability to do nothing, and he was then approved twice by the Parliament in spite of that. If MEPs did really not approve Barroso’s passivity, they could get rid of him tomorrow. But I think they find a useless Commission president more comfortable.

    “How to empower the president of the European Commission so that he can deliver”

    Finally, I agree with your proposals on “How to empower the president of the European Commission”.

    That’s why I think we should not only support the campaign “Who’s your candidate?” or Duff’s proposal for a European constituency for European elections, but also campaign for presidential primaries within European parties.

    PES activists have launched such a campaign in late July for a PES primary to be organised in 2013-2014. The idea is that party activists (or even supporters), not party leaders, should be designating the next PES candidate for Commission president. This campaign has gathered so far more than 1400 supporters:!/group.php?gid=139773746044558 The idea of European presidential primaries seems to ring a bell in people’s mind. I’m convinced it could be an important part of the solution.

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