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Barroso’s State of the Union speech defends the role of the Commission

30 Sep 2011

In his second annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament on Wednesday, 28 September 2011, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, took the opportunity to deliver a passionate critique of intergovernmentalism.

The Euro crisis is “the greatest challenge in the history of the Union” and the “test for our whole generation,” said President Barroso. But an intergovernmental response to the crisis driven solely by Member States risks “further renationalisation and fragmentation” and could be “the death of a united Europe,” he warned. We are a moment when “if we do not integrate further, we risk fragmentation.”

Defending the traditional Community Method, whereby the Commission is the independent initiator of policy and legislation, President Barroso called for a “truly Community approach” to resolving the Eurozone debt crisis, with the Commission playing a driving role.

His case for the Commission’s leadership in the debt crisis rests on two compelling arguments: competence and independence. He stressed that “within the Community competences, the Commission is the economic government of the Union” and maintained that “we certainly don’t need more institutions for this.” He also emphasised that “we need more than ever the independent authority of the Commission to propose and assess the actions that the Member States should take. Governments, let’s be frank, cannot do this by themselves. Nor can this be done by negotiations between governments.” This independence makes the Commission the “guarantor of fairness,” he said.

President Barroso described the deepening of economic coordination and integration as “as big a political task as an economic one.” Harkening back to flaws in the initial design of EMU, Barroso added that in order to make the Euro credible, and “really integrate the Euro area, we need to complete monetary union with real economic union.” This is the message of the markets, he emphasised, not just the federalists.

In a major move forward in this respect, the European Parliament voted on the same day as President Barroso’s speech to approve the six pack proposals to strengthen economic governance and coordination. The Ecofin Council will formally sign off on the package on 4 October 2011. Building on the six pack package, President Barroso announced that the Commission will present a proposal for “a single coherent framework to deepen economic coordination and integration” in the Euro area.

The Community Method has certainly come under pressure in the last number of years, as the European Commission’s authority has diminished both formally and informally within the European governance system. The Lisbon Treaty formally granted enhanced status to the European Council and the European Parliament, and both of those institutions have sought to maximise this at the expense of the Commission’s power. Informally, the speed and seriousness of the Euro crisis prompted a Member State-led response, with France and Germany to the fore. But in a trenchant comment, President Barroso said that for “for Euro area to be credible, we need a truly community approach.” “It was an illusion to believe that we could have a common currency and a single market with national approaches to economic and budgetary policy,” he continued, “let’s avoid another illusion that we can we can have a common currency and a single market with an intergovernmental approach.”

The intergovernmental approach in decision making could be seen as problematic for smaller Member States such as Ireland, whose interests have been traditionally defended in the system by the Commission, acting as a counterweight to the often domestic-driven demands of the larger Member States. President Barroso’s comments, therefore, are likely to be welcomed by smaller states.

Barroso’s strong criticism of intergovernmentalism and his defence of the Commission’s lynchpin role in the community method is a riposte to MEPs, who have been critical of his low profile during the Euro crisis, where his role has been eclipsed by President Van Rompuy and President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel.

President Barroso’s speech also featured a major critique of the speed of decision making in the Union, which has hampered an effective response to the economic crisis. In this regard, he advocated the use of the fast track legislative procedure (whereby the legislation is essentially pre-agreed between the Parliament and the Council and adopted at first reading) over the ordinary legislative procedure (where the law goes through the conventional co-decision legislative process, including three possible readings) as “we are living in real emergency times.”

He particularly singled out the constraint of unanimity as problematic because it slows down European decision making and undermines the credibility of the EU in the eyes of the markets. He argued that the pace of decision making cannot be “dictated by the slowest” and commented that it may be necessary to consider further Treaty Change in this regard. While he recognised the right of each Member State to unanimity, as it is bound to the issue of national sovereignty, Barroso maintained that this should not be allowed to block the progress of other Member States who wish to go further.

The second State of the Union Address was strong on rhetoric, but whether words will translate into a truly credible Community approach to the Euro crisis remains to be seen. President Barroso’s speech concluded with an impassioned appeal for action and for European renewal. Quoting Nelson Mandela, he remarked “‘it always seems impossible until it is done.’ Let’s do it. We can do it with confidence. We can do it, we can renew our Europe.”

President Barroso’s full speech can be read here.


This content forms part of the E View project, which is part-funded by DG Communication of the European Parliament. 


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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