After 10 years at the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso is leaving his post of president.
He exits as Europe remains in big difficulties, especially the eurozone where some countries are experiencing record unemployment and economic stagnation.
Euronews spoke to him and asked: “The European Union is today unloved by its citizens and synonymous with austerity. Do you feel you’ve failed or feel unsatisfied leaving your post?”
Jose Manuel Barroso: “Of course I’m extremely disatisfied when I see the sacrifices made, or being made, by many Europeans. But at the same time, I feel I must say to Europeans that this situation isn’t the fault of Europe, it’s the fault of those who created and managed financial markets… as we’ve seen the crisis began elsewhere.
“The crisis is also down to the cumulative mistakes made by some governments which didn’t think in terms of balance, governments which accumulated excessive debts. So, Europe is not the problem. On the contrary, Europe is part of the solution and it’s thanks to the European Union that certain countries have been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy.”
euronews: “But the social impact has been great…”
Barroso: “The situation remains difficult but we’re much better now than two years ago when everyone, or a large number of partners predicted the break up of the euro zone.”
euronews: “If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?”
Barroso: “First of all, I think there was a communication problem, and for that I must accept responsibility because despite all efforts, I don’t think we succeeded. Also, I must say that very often governments failed to work with us towards explaining to Europeans the origins of the crisis, the causes of the crisis and what we were doing about it; so, in my opinion, from a political point of view, we didn’t have much room to manoeuvre. As the Commission we operate in a strict framework imposed by governments which don’t always want to be generous with those in difficulties.”
euronews: “You’re saying there was a lack of solidarity between member states?”
Barroso: “I would’ve prefered if it was more forthcoming…”
euronews: “OK, but what would you say to those who accuse you of not being sufficiently firm? They say you could’ve taken the initiative when some states displayed a lack of solidarity, I’m thinking notably of Germany which took some time to react…”
Barroso: “No, first of all we did take the initiative, all the legislative initiatives were initiated by the Commission. If today there’s a banking union it’s because of the Commission. I remember the first time I spoke of a banking union – there were some countries which replied: ‘You can’t talk of a banking union because it’s not in the treaty’. Yes, I said it’s not but we need banking union to achieve the objectives of the treaty. It’s true that during the crisis, because of the sensitivity of the markets, I didn’t want to add my voice to the cacophony.”
euronews: “But shouldn’t you have done just that as European Commission President?”
Barroso: “When it was needed I did. I made very strong requests demanding that Germany help Greece, saying there would be dramatic consequences if there was no favourable decision. At the same time I went to Greece to tell the government it had to end the political confusion if it wanted to earn the trust of other member states. What I did, discretely with governments, our partners, was to search for a solution, and today these countries are in better shape than two years ago.”
euronews: “However, you were fiercely criticised for your handling of the euro crisis. How do you respond to your detractors?”
Barroso: “National politicians, when things go well, say it’s because of their actions. When things go badly it’s the fault of Brussels. That’s the reality. We don’t yet have a real sense of responsibility towards Europe, and I regret that. I’ve said to all governments and heads of state that they must give up this perspective because one day they’ll need to count on the support of their people for Europe, to stay in the union and they won’t have it if they systematically undermine the work of European institutions in favour of their national agendas.”
euronews: “You’re clearly describing David Cameron. At the recent European summit and again before MEPs, he said he wasn’t going to support the Commission’s claim for a bigger budget, an expansion he claims is based on the good performance of Britain’s economy.”
Barroso: “That’s a great example on what we shouldn’t be doing. The Commission is obliged to enforce the rules defined by the governments themselves. There is a rule concerning contributions in relation to each member states’ GDP. During the last few years – and congratulations to Britain – they’ve raised their GDP so they must increase their contribution proportionally. Rather than presenting it in those terms, the British PM came out with a diatribe against European institutions.”
euronews: “How do you feel in the face of such anger?”
Barroso: “Well, it’s unacceptable.”
euronews: “Aren’t you tired of being treated in this way?”
Barroso: “I don’t agree with this sort of behaviour. I think it’s always a mistake. Why is it a mistake? Because Mr Cameron always says he wants Britain to be in Europe, he wants a referendum to confirm its place in the EU. But he’s trying perhaps, against his will, for political reasons because another party is threatening; he’s trying to reinforce anti-European sentiment. It’s a fundamental error.”
euronews: “Anti-European sentiment that’s already very, very strong.. .”
Barroso: “It’s already strong and getting stronger. Listen, when there’s constant, every day attacks by political leaders on the European Commission, the European Union, of course people say the European Union isn’t a good thing…”
euronews: “France has made changes its budget to avoid a bust-up with Brussels. Italy too. Are you satisfied with this attitude?”
Barroso: “Despite what’s been written or said in some sections of the press, we’ve seen a positive attitude from the French and Italians. That means they recognise that the Commission has the right, even I would say the duty, to say when national budgets don’t conform with or break the rules.”
euronews: “It must, it’s in the treaty…”
Barroso: “We have a duty, it’s a power member states have given us, precisely because we’re integrated in the eurozone. We can’t have a single currency if each country does what it likes….
euronews: “OK, they have to respect the rules, rules which demand a penalty if broken. But do you think punitive fines are a good measure to apply to states which don’t respect the stability pact and which already have economic problems?”
Barroso: “That’s why member states have to respect the rules to avoid this scenario, a scenario that’s very, very negative. The next Commission must continue this work and see with the governments of each country. There are five, even though everyone always talks about France and Italy, there are five others who’ve needed the Commission’s financial help.”
euronews: “Talking of your successor and the new Commission. Do you have any advice to give?”
Barroso: “I won’t give any advice in public, successors don’t like to receive counsel in public… Now it’s him (Jean-Claude Juncker) who’s President, it’s not me and of course he has my full backing. I wish him and the Commission and Europe, the very best.”