Barroso’s promise of a federal Europe is an insult.

On May 9th, Europe celebrates its “independence day”, in commemoration of the 1950 Schuman declaration. This event should also constitute a moment of reflection, in a time of great difficulty for the European project. However, some European leaders seem to think that empty propaganda is more important than a serious debate.

Instead of fueling a long-awaited discussion on the future of Europe, Jose Barroso, the President of the European Commission, declared in an interview to the “Telegraph” yesterday that Europe will soon become “Federal”: an announcement that is not only a political mistake (it will give clean arguments to the British conservatives against staying in the Union), but also an incomprehensible statement in a time when confidence in the EU is waning.

The statement comes just a few days after economic data in the EU certified the double-dip recession even in the “core” – with German growth being sluggish in the latest quarter – and the rise in unemployment in the bloc, now at 12.1%.

Furthermore, an anti-EU feeling is now spread all over the continent, with peaks in the UK where the UKIP – a traditionally weak party in internal elections – scored a stunning result in the latest local vote.

A voice in defense of President Barroso might say that “the Commission is not responsible for Euroskepticism, but governments are”. Sure, national politicians have their responsibility, but the institution that is supposed to be the “guardian of the Treaties” has done little to avoid this loss of faith.

The European Commission, which President Barroso so shallowly presided for the past eight years, has been constantly overpowered throughout the crisis by national politics and by other European institutions. Its Lisbon Strategy proved to be a disaster (“making Europe the most competitive marketplace in the world by 2010…”), its project for a “job-rich recovery” is very far away from accomplishment (there is no recovery, let alone a job-rich one), its request to have a say in the most important issue of the crisis – banking supervision through its agent, the EBA – was dismissed by the Council, who also created an exemption for the Landesbanken, German regional banks that a different Commission had once tried to stop from using public guarantees to do speculative trade. Finally, national leaders also quickly dismissed a project for a mutualization of the Euro-zone debt through Eurobonds, launched by Barroso in 2010.

The president’s “state of the Union” addresses (what a pompous and inappropriate name…), for the past three years, have certified the state of denial of the crisis, of the institutional turmoil, of the decadent role of the European Commission itself. It is a decadence that is equally due both to the rising power of national politicians and to the inefficiency and the lack of vision of the European Commission leadership. The main actors on the scene are now other institutions – the Eurosummit, the ECB, the Council – whose priority is to reinforce the monetary Union and certainly not to create a federal Europe.

The legacy of these eight years of Barroso’s presidency is evident and could be easily summarized: a few unconvincing speeches, a constant incapacity to negotiate from an even position with national politicians and with the other institutions, a lack of initiative that clashes so stridently with the abundance of declarations of principle.

A serious, intense and constructive – but real – debate on the future of Europe should be launched, but it’s doubtful whether the current president of the Commission still has the credibility to do so. It is doubtful even whether the European Commission has the political strength to “force” that debate in the EU.

Ironically, a good recommendation for president Barroso comes from the Greek tradition: “words are silver, silence is gold…”

Alfonso Ricciardelli

8 thoughts on “Barroso’s promise of a federal Europe is an insult.

  1. Fraser Bridges (@fraserbridges)

    Let me be clear before I start. I too am deeply troubled by the Commission’s apparent “decadence” as you put it. Throughout the crisis, far from recognising the apparent illegitimacy of the deals made in Council for euro bailouts, it has instead excused them. It has only been recently that Barroso has dared to speak against the way these deals are conducted.

    However, Barroso’s use of the “F word” is an indication that leaders recognise, internally at least, that the Union’s governance structure is no longer fit for purpose. The Council’s intergovernmental governance method leads to the feeling of an unequal relationship between the Member States. This creates the feeling of being dictated to, or “Imposed austerity”. Federalism cure this. It enables the Parliament to be the central body of deliberation and decision making within the Union. It is inclusive and not exclusive. It is the only way out of the crisis.

    As far as I am concerned, this article seems to be more concerned with Barroso’s lack of tact in mentioning federalism to the euromyth-creating, Europhobic Telegraph (home of UKIP’s comment boards) than with the prospect of a federal Europe. You didn’t even begin to discuss the merits of federalism vs the current method of governance and crisis management for the Eurozone, which has disastrously been left with the Council.

    1. Alfonso Ricciardelli (@AlfonsoRicc)

      Why would I discuss the merit of federalism when the EU has never been federal, even when the Commission was more powerful and prominent?

      Supranational does not mean federal.

      Two questions:

      1) in crisis management, would a democratically accountable Euro-zone governance fare better (be more efficient) than the “Council” (but maybe better to say the ECB)?

      2) even if the answer is yes, would European citizens want it?

      I was just trying to stick with reality and leave intellectual exercises for better times.


      P.s. If you keep defining every criticism to the European project as “Europhobic”, you fail to realize that you are embedded in the same type of prejudice. Discussing the assumptions of “Europhobics” instead of judging them should be an exercise for whoever is passionate with the European project. Or else, you would just prove them right.

  2. Alfonso Ricciardelli (@AlfonsoRicc)

    @fraserbridges, federalism implies a shared feeling of being “one polity”. Or, as an alternative, a “switch of loyalty”.

    Which is basically the same thing. And which could not be further away from reality.

    Now, in order to get to this point, you need a strong involvement of Europeans in a debate about what THEY want Europe to be. Only if federalism eventually comes out as the favorite solution, you can start building federal Europe.

    What you seem to criticize is intergovernmentalism as opposed as supranationalism – but only as a way to build the governing institutions. A supranational EU – only governed by European elites – is in theory possible. A federalist Europe – where a federation of states has popular support – is today impossible.

    Here’s where Barroso’s fault is – and I didn’t want to get too academic, after all this is a blog: if he had some contacts with reality, he should have said “supranational” and not “federalist”.

    Looking at Europe’s reality today, federalism sounds like a joke; coming from Barroso’s mouth it is – precisely – an insult.

    Alfonso Ricciardelli (the author of the article).

  3. luisbouzagarcia

    Stating the cruel irony of seeing a weak President of the Commission promise a federal solution for Europe in a few years. After all, what is the point of having a federal Europe if the most federal of its institutions, the Commission, does not take a bold approach in promoting a quicker pace for European integration?

    However it is not fair to say that President Barroso’s federal position is new. As far as I can remember on the spot, this was also the central point of his speech on the state of the Union last year. You can argue that the discourse does not meet the political practice, the previous post is absolutely right on this point, but the lack of political determination is not limited to President Barroso but is shared by most leaders in today’s EU. The cruel fact is that federal Europe is out of the political radar. Whereas one decade from now Germany’s foreign minister could launch a debate on federalism and get the French government to consider the possibility of a “federation of nation states”, today federalism is limited to already convinced Europeans. The clearest federal voices one hears come from Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt in Debout l’Europe, to some extent Goulard and Monti in De la Democratie en Europe and intellectuals such as Habermas. None of them seems to be on the strongest political position in today’s Europe. To paraphrase Rousseau, federalism is the most obvious solution, and yet it is everywhere in chains.

    So as ironical and if you wish cynical as it may seem, it is comforting to hear a political character to openly argue for a federal Europe. The contrary may mean to accept the final defeat of federalist proposals.

  4. llondel

    If Barroso wanted to take a step in the right direction, he’d be proposing the abolition of the undemocratic commission and its replacement by a properly-elected body. At the moment, his federal plans amount to a form of dictatorship where unaccountable officials get to make laws without fully demonstrating that they’re aware of the negative impacts of said laws.

    On a lighter note, the EU bureaucracy should be relocated to Rockall. That way there’s a natural limit to the size of it, and only those who are truly dedicated are likely to want to work there. That would put a limit on the empire-building we see now, and the excessive tax-free allowances and salary given to officials.

    1. Alfonso Ricciardelli (@AlfonsoRicc)

      More than a relocation, I would say that if EU officials want a political, federal EU (which I doubt) they should have the willingness to convince European people. They have the arguments and the eloquence to do so.

      I am also convinced that Barroso meant a “supranational” Europe – he is not very familiar to the idea of accountability – but even so, he hasn’t moved a finger to achieve it.

      This, if we don’t take into account the rise of the Euro-zone, which is now almost a different bloc with its own institutions (ECB, Eurosummit) and an embryo of a budget (according to the TSCG, fines to Member states who violate the austerity provisions will go to the ESM…).

      Barroso should be more honest: he should apologize for not being able to achieve anything remarkable in his 8 years as president, figure out an acceptable solution for the future role of the Commission and fight for it, dismiss talks of a federal Europe as something that he wishes – but which is not achievable in the short term – and take constructive criticism from the people he wishes to govern.

  5. manifesto123

    @llondel: How do you propose to make the Commission more democratic? Certainly the different DGs are akin to government departments in national countires, so I don’t see what differentiates the Comission from typical government departments in terms of democratic accountability. In the end the Commissioners are selected by their respective country and need to be approved by the European Parliament so there is a certain aspect of democratic accountability as far as I can see it.

    On the note of the size of the EU Commission there are 23,600 civil servants and temporary agents working for a Union of 503m people. That makes a ratio of 1 employee for 21,313 citizens of the EU. Compare that to, for example, the UK civil service which employs 503,000 people – a ratio of 1 civil servant for every 125 UK citizens. It does not seem that the EU employs such a disproportionate amount of people.


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