Divorce seems to be consummated between France (or, rather, its national leaders) and José Manuel Barroso, the current President of the European Commission. Indeed, Claude Bartolone, Speaker of the French National Assembly, recently declared in Le Parisien that the ex-PM of Portugal was an outdated man. Some days before, Arnaud Montebourg, minister of Industry, even compared Barroso with Marine Le Pen, far-right Front national party’s leader and currently a non-attached MEP.
Barroso-bashing is not really surprising insofar as it has always existed, mainly in France. Since 2004 indeed, the European Commission leader had complicated relations with France and its political leaders. Some consider him as a zealous supporter of the US government, rewarded by Tony Blair’s UK government for being in favour of the American intervention in Iraq and faithful to a free-market and hardly protected Europe, following the credo “less regulation, better regulation”. Other people see in him a wimp man, not really a defender of a federal Europe, taking care of EU national leaders prerogatives to the great displeasure of the European citizens and European integration interests, an “anti-Delors”, to sum up.
French media regularly relay and put forward this little positive image of Barroso, who does not really something to shift his reputation towards a more and more critical (even virulent) French public opinion vis-à-vis the European Union, in which the current president of the European Commission is one of the symbols.
Nonetheless, Barroso-bashing clearly has a political expression with the EP 2014 elections in sight. For the French left and the French Socialist Party (and also for the Party of European Socialists) the ex-Portuguese Premier embodies what is going wrong with the European integration. It is clearly a first-choice target and this is a subtle and clever way but unintentional to save some actors, such as the EU national leaders who are actually driving the European boat and have contributed by their choice and strategy to the Barroso-bashing in France.
The European Council, being at the core of the EU decision-making process, weakened and then put the Commission aside, the latter not acting as guardian of the treaties anymore. Although José Manuel Barroso is largely responsible, it must be reminded that EU national leaders are also accountable for having reappointed him for a second-term to the head of the European Commission in 2009. Disowned by the subprime crisis, the ex-Portuguese leader was finally backed by the European People’s Party but also by all national conservative leaders (Angela Merkel, so critical towards him nowadays, and Nicolas Sarkozy) but also by some socialist leaders like Gordon Brown and even José Socrates. The Portuguese Socialist Party leader and Prime minister justified his decision because Barroso was Portuguese. The absence of clear political strategy divided the European socialist family who had not any candidate to challenge Barroso and missed the opportunity to politicize the EP elections and tackle European Commission’s leader outcome.
So, while the 2009 European elections should have been the occasion for the European Council to take a new direction with the nomination of a new president for the European Commission, in the end national interests were superior to the European integration’s and the people’s ones. José Manuel Barroso’s personality was acceptable for most EU national leaders who did not wish a great leader being able to challenge them. In fact, even if Barroso-bashing is justified, it is only the logical result of the choices made by the national rulers considering José Manuel Barroso as a comfortable solution for them.
The 2014 EP elections should be the opportunity to think about the weight and the role the Commission (and especially its future leader) must play. On this point, the recent attitude of Martin Schulz, current socialist chairman of the European Parliament, may be interpreted as another form of Barroso-bashing insofar as he targets the European Commission leader. Even Viviane Reading, current European commissioner, seems to be distant from Barroso, expressing her views for a federal Europe at the moment a probable candidacy of the former Luxembourgian minister for the leadership of the European Commission is clearly put forward by some analysts. Waiting for it, Barroso’s detractors will have to be patient and take him into account, because his mandate to the head of the European Commission is still running till October 2014.