Barroso calls for closer economic governance among EU countries
Giving his first 'State of the Union' address under the Lisbon Treaty in the EU assembly today (7 September), European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned hostile members of parliament not to wage "guerrilla" wars against him or risk undermining the EU's attempts to recover from its worst recession in decades.
After eight years of struggle and soul-searching, the European Union's Lisbon Treaty came into force on 1 December 2009.
The Lisbon Treaty was expected to rejuvenate the decision-making apparatus of the EU institutions, making the functioning of the 27-member Union more efficient and democratic.
The European Parliament was already able to show its increased scrutiny powers under the new treaty on two occasions: during the approval hearings for the new commissioners and in the process of setting up the EU's diplomatic service (European External Action Service).
But in some EU countries, leaders sometimes "read" the Lisbon Treaty differently and try to re-nationalise EU prerogatives, warn those favouring the so-called 'Community approach'.
Apparently inspired by the US model, the first-ever 'State of the Union' debate took place in the form of a forty minute-long speech by Barroso, followed by more than two hours of questions and answers from which the head of the EU executive emerged largely unscathed.
Commission officials accompanying Barroso told EurActiv that they were pleased with the overall "constructive" debate.
In a hemicycle packed with MEPs – an earlier threat by heads of the Parliament to sanction absenteeism was finally abandoned– Barroso delivered a carefully-worded message, which at some points was even interrupted by applause coming from both his left and right.
Barroso earned plaudits when he denounced racism, saying it had no place in Europe and that governments had to respect the rights of minorities.
Debate about the Roma community has been raging in France since an announcement by President Nicolas Sarkozy that those without legal status will be expelled. The issue of Roma expulsion in France is the second hot topic on the agenda today (7 September).
The Commission president was also strongly applauded when he condemned as "barbarism beyond words" the death sentence by stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman found guilty of adultery.
A few novelties
Barroso also won acclaim when he touched upon the future of the Union's energy policy. The Commission president said EU citizens needed to see the benefits of energy liberalisation, drawing parallels with previous EU legislation to cut the so-called "roaming fees" charged when making mobile phone calls abroad.
Barroso voiced his intention to visit the Caspian region soon to promote the "Southern gas corridor" – a series of pipeline projects intended to bring gas to Europe from sources other than Russia.
A rather long section related to financial regulation, economic governance, deepening the internal market and boosting competitiveness failed to trigger similar support.
Turning to the economic outlook, Barroso said the Union today was in better shape than a year ago. But there was no room for complacency, he warned. "We will either swim together or sink separately," Barroso said, calling for closer economic governance among EU countries following the Greek debt crisis.
One apparent novelty in Barroso's speech was a proposal to introduce a system of "EU project bonds" to finance major projects of economic interest, as well as a European system for monitoring unemployment more closely.
Barroso also announced that he would present the Commission's legislative proposals on financial supervision on 29 September.
Barroso replies to critics
Following the speech, the main criticism addressed to Barroso by the leaders of the centre-right, liberal and Green groups was that the Commission president had failed to make sufficient use of the initiative role given to him by the treaties.
According to his critics, he had not taken a stand against attempts to misinterpret the Lisbon Treaty by governments unwilling to abandon their prerogatives, and left France and Germany to decide alone on the Union's strategies.
"I tried to sense what were the main issues on substance," Barroso replied, reacting to the first wave of criticism.
On substance, he said he had inferred that a clear majority in the House wanted more Europe, more Community method and more ambitious EU integration. He agreed with one of his most vociferous critics, Green co-president Daniel Cohn-Bendit, that some EU governments were trying to make an inter-governmental interpretation of the Lisbon Treaty.
"The best thing to do, instead of making comments, is to prepare the construction of the future," he said, replying in French to the former leader of the 1968 student uprising in Paris.
Barroso explained that his role was not to comment about this situation, as he preferred to leave this task to commentators, but to make "concrete, ambitious proposals" such as those he said he had just presented.
"The best thing to achieve our goals is not to engage in endless discussions on the institutions and certainly not in institutional guerrillas, something I don't want and I won't do. The important thing is that the Commission fulfils its role of putting forward proposals with quality and with courage, and that you would work with us in the same spirit," Barroso said.
Reacting to accusations by Socialist leader Martin Schulz that he had left a Franco-German directorate to rule EU affairs, Barroso said he would gladly accept such criticism if that meant helping to build consensus among Europe's main political forces.
Several speakers also deplored the absence of High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton from the hemicycle. Most commissioners were present alongside Barroso, although none of them were given the floor.
Repeating a position already expressed by French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner, Joseph Daul, leader of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, said Europeans could not understand why the EU was absent from the negotiating table at the Israel-Palestine talks on 2 September.
Daul also urged the Commission to improve its visibility while providing aid in disaster areas, as he said the "EU aid arrived with the helicopter and planes of Mr. [Vladimir] Putin and Mr. [Barack] Obama". He also criticised the Union for being "too hesitant" on stepping up cooperation in defence policy and said a European tax should no longer be a "taboo".
Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, piled pressure on Barroso to table a proposal for a financial transaction tax (FTT). He warned that if the EU executive failed to do so, his group would trigger the new European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in their bid to request new EU legislation.
Schulz blasted the EU's handling of the Greek debt crisis and said that according to the information he had, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had handled the issue behind closed doors, after having asked Council President Herman Van Rompuy to wait outside.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, called for European economic governance, saying that Europe could not afford to be one whole with 27 different economic strategies. He described plans by some EU governments to have the next EU budget reduced by 20-30% as "ridiculous".
He also lamented the lack of a clear foreign strategy for the Union, saying that the last such document, put forward by then Foreign policy chief Javier Solana, dated back to 2003.
European Conservatives and Reformists group chairman Michal Kaminski MEP said President Barroso got only "half of his speech right". "He is correct that the EU needs to focus on completing the Single Market, on research, jobs and increasing competitiveness. However, there is still a large difference between what the EU says and what it does on these subjects," Kaminski said.