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-.