Monday 13. July 2020
#177 - December 2014


A quick review of the Barroso Commission


Now that José-Manuel Barroso has stepped down as President of the European Commission, an analysis of his ten years in office is needed in order to understand the unique context of the crises.

In his last speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, speaking about the efforts of the Commission during this period, stated that: “But one of the lessons I draw from this is that if eventually it was possible to come to decisions, it is true that it was sometimes extremely painful and difficult. And took time. We have said also, and I think it is something that we can all agree: democracy is slower than the markets are”.


In an attempt to discharge responsibilities from the Commission, Mr. Barroso has pointed to a deeper source of concern when we talk about politics: the primacy of economics (and mainly of finance) over politics. To subjugate democracy to the markets is always a strong argument when describing our “democratic deficits”, and the admission by Mr. Barroso - although he only acknowledges it in terms of speed of reaction - gives a lot of ammunition to those who are sceptical of our fragile democracies.


But we cannot accuse Mr. Barroso of having underestimated the power of markets. Mr. Barroso himself, in his farewell discourse, explains the uniqueness of the situation with which he has had to live. “This was not just an economic crisis but also a very strong political one". As he declared in this very same speech: "I think you can agree with me that these have been exceptional and challenging times. Ten years of crisis, and response of the European Union to this crisis. Not only the financial and sovereignty debt crisis – let's not forget at the beginning of my first mandate we had a constitutional crisis, when two founding members of the European Union rejected, in referenda, the Constitutional Treaty. So we had a constitutional crisis, we had a sovereign debt and financial crisis, and in the most acute terms we now have a geopolitical crisis, as a result of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine”.


“Ten years of crisis”, this is the resumé that Mr. Barroso himself makes of this period. And beyond the rhetoric of the statement we can easily agree with him. If a word has dominated the public debate these ten years it is "crisis", and if we look at the impacts (very high unemployment, dramatic budget cuts, reduction of social protection and an impressive mistrust in the political community in general and the lowest appreciation of the European Union among its citizens) we have to admit that they have been devastating.


If we accept the dramatic description of this period we have to recognise that it has not been easy at all; on the contrary, we have lived - and many still live - in very difficult years. The financial crisis put the survival of the Euro at risk, and has even seriously considered the possibility of Greece leaving the Union (the list of possible members state candidates which contemplated abandoning the club was even larger) but today this has been overcome. The debt crisis has put enormous pressure on the Union but it has been mostly the European Central Bank, not the Commission, which has dealt with it. And one has to acknowledge the role of the Barroso Commission in leadership towards a federal Economic and Monetary Union - this is not a minor achievement.


Most probably Mr. Barroso has lost the battle of public opinion. The widespread image of him in the media is that of a grey bureaucrat without charisma who has generally been more pushed into than pulling out from events. But perhaps the circumstances better explain his leadership. In 2009 the Union decided to reinforce the position of President of the Council, appointing the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy. With this appointment the Member States were looking to reinforce the intergovernmental architecture at the price of diminishing the role of the Commission.


So, in the midst of this terrible crisis, the Commission found itself powerless and the Council, mainly through Angela Merkel, occupied the centre of the scene. Decisions had to be taken quickly and by those who had the power and the capacity for implementing them. The Commission has neither the resources nor the power to impose many of the needed measures. As Mr. Barroso said, the Union is not one single space but 28 public spaces. More intervention by the Member States has logically reduced the capacity for manoeuvre of the European Commission.


The legacy of José-Manuel Barroso can only be understood in the context of the crises as previously presented, but also as a consequence of the enlargement from 15 to 28 Members States, by the Treaty of Lisbon, by the new geopolitical emergences (China, India and Russia) and by the correct but not enthusiastic relationship with the Obama administration. We can expect the future judgment to be more generous than that of today, although it is vital for Mr. Barroso's successor to improve the public support for the EU. As for the Churches, and always in that mode of “consolidation rather than innovation” that characterised the Barroso Commission, we have to acknowledge the implementation of Article 17 of the Treaty of Lisbon (TFEU). By means of the annual gathering with religious leaders and the Dialogue Seminars the Commission has kept an open, transparent and regular dialogue with the Church. Obviously there is room for improvements in this dialogue, but we have to recognize its implementation.


Jose Ignacio Garcia SJ




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