On Wednesday 11 September 2013, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, delivered the last State of Union speech of this legislature. In this article, we deconstruct the speech and point out its key elements. The length of the speech has probably made it boring to the media looking for catchy titles and sentences, but we believe it was more interesting than has been claimed in general. However, this does not prevent us from formulating criticism on certain issues. Here is our belated (sorry!) analysis.
The content of the speech can be articulated in 3 parts: a review of what has been achieved in the past years, an overview of the challenges and projects for the coming months, and a long-term vision of the European integration based upon the founding principles and purposes of the EU.
I/ Defending the action of the EU to face the crisis of the recent years
Although J.M. Barroso mentioned it towards the end of his speech, we want to note from the outset that he was right reminding that the EU is not the cause of the crisis. Of course, the actors on the financial markets cannot be blamed alone, nor can the USA and their housing market bubble: European national regulators have failed to prevent European banks from being over-exposed to risk and some governments have recklessly managed their public finances. But it is important to note that the EU itself is not the cause of the crisis: it was not competent for banking supervision and the attempts to enforce the rules set in the Stability & Growth Pact were hindered by the Member States, starting with France and Germany. The EU was only competent for monetary policy (via the ECB).
So, as Mr Barroso said, what we can do is to “explain how Europe has worked to fix the crisis”. In his own words, the EU and its Member States have achieved something “we would never have thought […] possible 5 years ago” when Lehman brothers collapsed. New rules to make the financial markets safer and force their protagonists to act more responsibly have been adopted. Fiscal discipline and structural reforms have been (painfully) pushed through in many countries that needed it (although the appropriate speed of spending cuts is questioned). Moreover, more than €700 billion have been mobilised to stabilise the financial situation of Member States on the brink of bankruptcy, so that no one was expelled from the Eurozone. On the contrary, the EU welcomed its 28th member, Croatia, and Latvia will join the Eurozone on 1 January 2014. J.M. Barroso underlined the inter-institutional effective cooperation, in particular between the Commission and the European Parliament that allowed achieving all this. He praised the legislative work of the MEPs and the decisive role they played all over the past four years, and regretted this effort was not more widely known by the citizens. The President of the Commission also called upon his listeners to “draw confidence from [the progress achieved] to pursue what we have started”.
Finally, Mr Barroso pointed out what has improved in the recent months and expressed hope that this progress would continue in the future. He declared that instead of receiving lessons at the G20, European efforts had been appreciated and encouraged this year. Not only the international partners were convinced; on the basis of various indicators, the European Commission’s President also claimed that investors’ and consumers’ confidence was rising. He also noted that the countries “most vulnerable to the crisis and [which] are now doing most to reform their economies” start earning positive results of their policies: Spain regained competitiveness; Portugal’s economy returned to growth; Greece will achieve a primary budgetary surplus; Cyprus implements the aid programme as schedules; and Irish companies, are re-hiring staff while the country’s economy is likely to grow for the third consecutive year. For Europe as a whole, “recovery is within sight”. However, Mr Barroso is right to say that “this should push us to keep our efforts”.
II/ An outline of the programme for the coming months
Consequently, the second main element of the speech is the programme set for the coming months. The President of the European Commission insisted on continuing our efforts to stimulate the recovery, so that the young and the unemployed regain hope and benefit from the recovery. He spoke about completing the banking union, considered as a priority. The first phase (a single supervisory mechanism under the responsibility of the ECB) is nearly completed, but another pillar, the single resolution mechanism, progresses very slowly because several Member States (in particular, Germany) are reluctant to adopt it. Mr Barroso also linked the banking union to “restoring normal lending to the economy, notably to SMEs”, reminding that sound and stable banks are necessary to support businesses and stimulate the economic activity.
Growth is indeed “necessary to remedy today’s most pressing problem: unemployment.” At European level, an important leverage for growth is completing the single market where it does not yet exist, e.g., “communications, energy, finance and e-commerce”. To succeed in reaching this goal, the Commission presented a legislative package on telecoms to bring down prices and “present new opportunities for companies”. In addition, the “broader digital agenda” will be accompanied by legislation on data protection, which is indeed necessary to protect citizens’ and businesses’ interests and gain their trust. The Single Market Act I and II also need to be completely implemented. Moreover, the Horizon 2020 framework programme aims at stimulating innovation, technology and scientific research, and there is also a focus on investing “in skills, education and vocational training” via programmes such as Erasmus Plus.
Furthermore, the Commission will make new proposals in the coming months. So, J.M. Barroso announced “further proposals for an industrial policy fit for the 21st century”, “concrete proposals for our energy and climate framework up to 2030” coupled with diplomatic action to find a “legally binding global climate agreement by 2015”. The President of the Commission also announced the necessity to sometimes go beyond the Europe 2020 economic agenda. Here, one must wonder whether it is a good idea to question yet another time the validity of a long-term strategy and why Mr Barroso does so: is it too ambitious or not enough? Is it realistic? Why is it not good enough? And why are its results insufficient?
To get these various ideas and proposals implemented, the Commission’s President insisted on cooperation and on subsidiarity. Institutions need to cooperate to adopt the multiannual financial framework (MFF) 2014-2020, so that the programmes can start on time and the citizens can see tangible results of European action. So, despite the fact that the level of resources is insufficient in both the Commission’s and the EP’s view, Mr Barroso asked the MEPs and the Member States to quickly adopt an amended proposal that will be presented later this month by the Commission. Apart from praising the cooperation between the Commission and the European Parliament, J.M. Barroso reminded that “not all [instruments] are at European level, some are at national level”. Indeed, major decisions, e.g., on youth employment need an implementation at national level. He called upon Member States to “speed up the pace of structural reforms” on the basis of the Country Specific Recommendations delivered each year by the Commission. Finally, restoring growth will also be spurred by international cooperation, e.g., by negotiating trade agreements such as those with the USA, Canada and Japan.
The implementation of the various proposals outlined above will take place in “challenging times”, with a structural rather than cyclical crisis to tackle. As the EU is in a situation where “the path of permanent and profound reform is as demanding as it is unavoidable”, J.M. Barroso decided to devote some time to discuss political reforms that will have to take place in the coming years if the EU is to be an actor rather than a victim of the deep changes which are already taking place.
III/ Thinking further: Europe as a political entity
A first relevant observation is that the EU is unavoidable because of the high degree of interdependence between Member States and between regions. As Mr Barroso rightly noted, “there is a direct link between one country’s loans and another country’s banks, between one country’s investments and another country’s businesses, between one country’s workers and another country’s companies.” Therefore, “we have to tackle [our challenges] together.”
Moreover, the EU is more than a market, an economic area; the EU is also based on political and social values and on certain economic and social standards. And the EU is necessary to protect these values and standards in today’s world.
J.M. Barroso devoted a part of his speech to Europe’s external policy. He asserted that the impact of European action in support of development and humanitarian causes was always stronger when it was done in common rather than separately by multiple national bodies. He also expressly mentioned Syria, stating that it was “precisely with our values that we address the unbearable situation in Syria”: he strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons and welcomed “the proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons beyond use”. Furthermore, Mr Barroso also spoke about the enlargement policy and the role of the EU in “healing history’s deep scars”, reminding that Europe is experiencing its longest ever period of peace and that the EU has been created as a project of peace which was consecrated by the obtaining of the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Despite the crisis, the European economic and social model still attracts neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine, and the EU should welcome and support them on their way towards more democracy, freedom and prosperity. This section on Europe’s role in the world was important, since “our internal coherence and international relevance are inextricably linked.”
Finally, let us focus on J.M. Barroso’s words about improving Europe and going towards a stable political union. We must welcome his declaration that now is the time to “bring a truly European perspective to the debate with national constituencies.” The President of the European Commission recognised that the current EU was not perfect, “as any human endeavour”, and challenged its critics to be constructive and make proposals to improve it. He recalled a key principle of the European integration: subsidiarity. In his own words: “Europe needs to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things.” The “big things” include the Economic and Monetary Union, which needs to be determined at European level and needs a credible “political and institutional construct”. Therefore, Mr Barroso called for a political union, claiming that it “needs to be our political horizon.” He indicated that he would “present, before the European elections, further ideas on the future of our Union and how best to consolidate and deepen the community method and community approach in the longer term”, so as to have “a real European debate”. This initiative must be welcomed, although I believe that the campaign for the 2014 European elections cannot only be about the future political and institutional structure of the EU but needs to give a large place to concrete issues mattering to the citizens. J.M. Barroso also outlined some principles that should govern a reform: political unity (“the European Union must remain a project for all members, a community of equals”), economic unity (“Economically, Europe has always been a way to close gaps between countries, regions and people. […] strengthening the social dimension is a priority for the months to come.”), and the respect of the rule of law and of the union’s values. Finally, he also praised the Commission’s role as “an independent and objective referee”, which does not constrain national sovereignty or democracy but guarantees the respect of “basic common principles”.
Although it was not a particularly charismatic speech, José Manuel Barroso defended the action of his Commission to face the crisis over the past years. He also insisted on what remains to do and outlined the priorities for the coming months. In addition, he tried to give a broader perspective of the future of the Union, by pointing the ways towards a “political union”, in the carefully selected words of the Commission’s President, which may actually mean a federal Union. Mr Barroso also directly challenged the Eurosceptics to make concrete proposals to improve the EU, rather than just criticising it, and he underlined that not all potential of action lies at Union level. He tried to show that the EU is not an abstract bureaucratic monster, nor “a foreign power”, but is instead “the result of democratic decisions by the European institutions and the Member States”. And he highlighted that “in some areas, Europe still lacks the power to do what is asked of it”, something “that is all too easily forgotten by those, and there are many out there, who always like to nationalise success and Europeanise failure.”
José Manuel Barroso did maybe not sound as a visionary, but this was not his job (his mandate is about to end and the deepening of the European integration needs a broad and mediatised debate) and he was right to remind the MEPs and the citizens of some basic truths about European politics and policies.