In this episode of Global Conversation, I was delighted to speak to José Manuel Barroso.
For a decade from 2004, Mr Barroso was President of the European Commission. In this role, he worked with the then-Vice President, now President-Elect, Joe Biden and also helped oversee one of Europe's economic recoveries following the financial crisis beginning in 2008. Another recovery is much-needed now in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a subject we discussed. We discussed all of these issues plus his new role, to be assumed in January 2021.
Joe Biden's election as US President
I began by asking Mr Barroso about his reaction when he heard that Joe Biden had beaten Republican incumbent Donald Trump:
"Yes, I was delighted that he won the election. I believe we can work with Joe Biden very well in terms of convergence between Europe and the United States of America.
"And so I think (like) most European people, we were welcoming the news of Joe Biden's election. I think with some exceptions - probably some populist leaders - at least the current leaders of the European Union were delighted to learn about Joe Biden in the election."
I asked Mr Barroso for his sense of the incoming president's beliefs after working with him extensively as President of the Commission when Biden was Barack Obama's deputy; he responded that Mr Biden was a safe pair of hands:
"It's someone also who believes in the importance of American-European cooperation, not only with the European Union but NATO. So I think we now have the basis to make some progress in this relationship. I think it's not going to be exactly like before, because the world has changed. But it's good to know that we have someone we know and someone we like leading the United States of America."
I thought the point that he made about the world having changed was an interesting one; as I spoke to him, more tariffs on US goods had been introduced and the European Commission is continuing to look into antitrust competition laws. I asked him if it was a reminder that, although Europe and America are allies in a broader sense, they are also competitors. He agreed, but said competition was fair enough and was a separate issue:
"(Within) Europe also, let's be honest, there is competition between the different governments and different countries. Competition is OK.
"The point is about being allies in important issues like defence and also to be partners in many matters and to have overall, a convergence of views. And in fact, basically, Europeans and the Americans share the same values. And I think this is incredibly important in this very unpredictable world of today.
"So what we need is, of course, a framework for this cooperation in spite of what most people think. The reality is that the European Union-United States relationship is still the number one in the world in economic terms if you look at the volume of trade and also the investment on both sides. So it's a very important relationship and we should do more to develop it."
Brexit and Biden
This brought the conversation to Brexit; Manfred Weber said this week that he thinks Joe Biden's US election victory strengthens the EU's hand when it comes to negotiations with the UK on this future trade deal. I asked Mr Barroso if he agreed:
"I think that even before Joe Biden's election, we were (getting) closer to an agreement and I hope there will be an agreement.
"I think it will really be a shame and almost absurd now to not to have an agreement and to have tariffs or quotas between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I think we are very close to an agreement.
"I think the UK was ready to compromise even before (the US Presidential) election. It's true that President-Elect Biden has a very strong connection with Ireland and in a way that is, of course (a connection) with the European Union.
"That was one of the reasons why we also were so delighted with his election. Having said that, I don't think this is going to be a decisive factor for an agreement to come - hopefully - between the UK and the European Union."
The EU's COVID-19 response
Turning to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I asked Mr Barroso if he thought perhaps the EU had actually worked better during the crisis in formulating an economic recovery plan than it had during his time as President of the Commission; at that time, it had really struggled to agree on one in the wake of the financial crisis?
"Look, the response now would not have been possible without the work done before. Let's not forget where we were at that time. At that time, most people were predicting Greece to leave the Euro. Many people, including in the markets, were predicting the end of the Euro. We have saved the Euro.
"And at that time, we broke a lot of taboos. For instance, at that time, many of our member states did not accept the very (principle) of bailout, of supporting the weaker countries. And now they have understood that in a union like the European Union we need to be together. And so, yes, now this time it was possible to go further and be quicker.
"But because there was the experience of the last crisis and also because now we have instruments that at that time we had to create from scratch - for instance the European Stability Mechanism that did not exist at that time. And so now people felt comfortable in doing more. And of course, this is very good news."
"By the way, I think still more has to be done. But the response, I think, has been a very convincing response that was received by some people with some surprise - frankly, not by me, because I know that the European Union (operates) step by step. Sometimes, namely in times of crisis, there are big steps and that's exactly what happened this time. And I think from that point of view, we may be positive about developments we see today in the European Union."
At this point, we moved onto one of his new upcoming roles; in 2021, he will assume the chairmanship of Gavi, the international vaccine organisation bringing together public and private sectors to create equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries. Given the current pandemic, I asked him about his reaction to Pfizer's announcement that tests demonstrated that its COVID-19 vaccine is effective in 90% of cases.
"I prefer not to comment more specifically (for now), but certainly I can say that we have all received this news very positively. As you know, we have to wait for the emergency use authorisation. And we know that this vaccine - and possibly other vaccines that have been developed - are a very strong response to the current pandemic.
"And it's so critically important from a public health point of view, but also from an economic and social point of view. So basically, it's extremely good news, very hopeful news, that we have just received."