Barroso's Rise: Euro Crisis Means More Power for European Commission

By Christoph Schult  in Brussels

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has a reputation for avoiding conflict. But as the euro crisis has worsened, his power has increased. He is one of the few winners of the problems facing Europe's common currency.

Photo Gallery: Barroso's Increasing Power Photos
AFP

When José Manuel Barroso launches into one of his notorious PowerPoint presentations in the conference hall of the European Council building in Brussels, the mood among European Union leaders present quickly begins to resemble that of an endless vacation slide show in someone's living room. While grandpa waxes lyrical over his photos of Alpine wildflowers, the rest of the family reaches for snacks and hopes the show will soon end.

With each new slide that the Commission president pulls up on table monitors, his enthusiasm for the achievements and initiatives of his own organization grows, while the 27 heads of state and government resign themselves to their fate. The most recent Brussels summit was no different. EU leaders leaned back into their chairs, confident that Barroso's presentation would not prove particularly demanding.

This time, though, they were wrong. When some European leaders raised objections to the fiscal policy recommendations from Brussels, the Commission president fired back. He reminded those assembled that they were the ones who had given the Commission the right to set parameters for national governments. It didn't make any difference to him if they continued to play their little tactical games, he said, noting that he would prefer to stick to facts. And then Barroso said heatedly: "If the European Council doesn't sign off on these recommendations, we'll have a serious problem."

The leaders were shocked. Was this Barroso speaking? It certainly wasn't the Barroso they'd grown accustomed to.

José Manuel Durão Barroso, 56, has been the head of the most powerful EU institution for eight years. More than 32,000 people ultimately report to him, and he is part of every crisis summit. Yet he has long since proven himself to be reliably risk-averse. The head of the EU executive branch, essentially the chief executive of the union, rarely demanded things that others hadn't already demanded before.

Never Been Able to Shine

Advantageous in this approach is that Barroso hardly ever makes serious mistakes. On the other hand, however, he has never been able to shine.

Nevertheless, the Portugal native is now among the beneficiaries of the European financial crisis; it has steadily increased his power. In the last two years, politicians in almost every European capital have increasingly realized that "more Europe and not less" is essential, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it during Barroso's most recent visit to Berlin. This, she added, also meant that "the Commission will have more opportunities to play a controlling role." Barroso stood next to her and smiled.

With almost every step toward reform that the EU has taken since the crisis began, the jurisdiction of the European Commission has grown. The so-called European Semester entitles Barroso to set targets for national budgets. They go into effect automatically, unless the affected country organizes a majority opposing the targets in the Council of Ministers.

Barroso is currently negotiating guidelines that would force the member states to send their budget proposals to Brussels before national parliaments vote on them. That could even include empowering the European Commission to demand changes to national budget plans.

As if that weren't enough, atthe summit in late June, Barroso -- together with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, Euro Group President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi -- submitted a plan to supplement the monetary union with a "political union." The plan envisions giving the Commission extensive rights of intervention, joint bonds and a European bank regulatory agency.

During the financial crisis, Barroso came across as a secondary player, but now he is increasingly developing into an equal -- and not always to the delight of the person who helped create him, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel was instrumental in getting Barroso appointed, joining European conservatives to overcome the objection of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Singing Off Tune

It's a spring morning in Hamburg, and Barroso is eating breakfast in the elegant Hamburg Senate guesthouse on the Outer Alster Lake. His Portuguese accent, his face, his body language -- everything about him seems soft and cautious. He is wearing reading glasses and reviewing the manuscripts of speeches he is scheduled to give on this day. He thinks of Alastair Campbell, the legendary spokesman and spin-doctor of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Campbell provided his boss with a simple message to focus on every day, Barroso raves, and what fantastic speeches he wrote! The staff members gathered at the breakfast table adopt expressions of irritation. Oh no, Barroso is quick to say, it wasn't meant as criticism.

Still, it clearly rankles the European Commission president that he has little clout relative to Europe's most powerful leaders. He has become used to being ignored. There have been times when he felt the way he once felt in school, when the teacher already interrupted him during voice warm-ups because his singing was so off tune.

Barroso recounts the episode, and it sounds as if he had resolved, at the time, to do everything he could never to be excluded again. Perhaps that's why his speeches, including the ones he is giving on this day, come across as lists of his achievements. He has earned his reputation as a careerist.

He can, however, be convincing when he relies less on his advisers than on his gut feeling, as was the case recently at the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. A Canadian journalist asked him why prosperous Europe, instead of helping itself, is begging the rest of the world to contribute money to the International Monetary Fund. "Frankly, we are not coming here to receive lessons in terms of democracy or in terms of how to handle the economy," Barroso snapped. Few people had seen him so upset before.

Barroso has finished his breakfast and is now talking about his mother, who died at an advanced age two years ago. Even when he had already been president of the Commission for some time, he says, she was still worried about his safety every day.

When he was in Moscow in 2008 to mediate in the conflict between Georgia and Russia, he says, she was constantly asking him how dangerous his mission was. He eventually became so unnerved that he handed the phone to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had accompanied him to Russia. "Your son is OK," Sarkozy assured her.

Forced Optimism

He isn't embarrassed to reveal such anecdotes. In fact, at such moments, he conveys a sense of being completely at ease with himself. Of course, such ease usually eludes him in public.

Barroso inherited his first surname, Durão, or "the robust one," from his mother, but the name says little about his character. "I'm not a fan of macho types," he says.

Later in the day, he visits Hamburg's most controversial construction site, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which has since become a symbol of poor political planning and failure. He takes the elevator to the top of the half-finished building, high above the harbor, where his host explains to him how construction costs have skyrocketed and the opening date has been delayed again and again. Barroso, a man who would be undeterred by such obstacles, says: "I'm very impressed, and I'm sure you'll find solutions to the problems."

It's the same calculated optimism with which he talks about his own construction site: Europe. Barroso could certainly say a thing or two about the botched work he has experienced. Every day, he witnesses how political players in EU capitals are sabotaging Project Europe. There are countries that suddenly decide that they want to do away with borderless travel, as if this were not one of the key achievements of the community. Others, like Hungary and Romania, are suspending important constitutional guarantees out of hand. But Barroso usually shies away from publicly tangling with such member states. Instead, he prefers to express his eternal hope that these problems will somehow resolve themselves.

This has earned him the reputation of being an eternally weak Commission president, which isn't entirely his fault. The Lisbon Treaty has limited his scope and given him the Belgian politician Hermann Van Rompuy who, in his office across the Rue de le Loi, represents the leaders of the 27 member states.

In addition, Barroso has to devote much of his energy to keeping his own house in order. His 26 commissioners come from highly diverse political camps and sometimes represent the interests of their home countries ahead of Europe's.

Classic Compromise

One of the people who discovered Barroso for Europe is Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament for Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Brok likes to relate how, at Merkel's instruction, he convinced then French President Jacques Chirac of Barroso's qualities, and of how she wanted him to obstruct the liberal Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt, the favorite of Chancellor Schröder, and his ideas about a "United States of Europe."

Barroso was the classic compromise candidate from the political center, not a radical federalist like Verhofstadt, but also not a champion of the British view that the EU was little more than a big common market. He was someone who, despite being a member of the conservative European People's Party, belongs to a party in Portugal that calls itself "social democratic."

Brok, who was proud of the coup at the time, is disappointed today and complains about the "loss of confidence in the Commission." One reason the influence of national governments has become so strong, he says, is that Barroso failed to show any leadership until well into the financial crisis.

In truth, the European Parliament ought to be a natural ally of Barroso's. Like the Commission, the parliament champions overall European goals, whereas national interests predominate in the Council. But for a long time, Barroso couldn't decide which side he belonged to.

This makes it difficult for him to stand up to the ego trips of member states. "I'm not buying a war," he likes to say. For a long time, Barroso tried to please everybody -- with the result that no one was satisfied. He also became burdensome to the chancellor. "He shouldn't call so much," she told her staff once, when he was on the phone again.

Plenty of Advantages

But Merkel was also one of the first to notice Barroso's increasing insistence when it came to his demands for Europe. At the beginning of last year, she had had enough. Once again, Barroso had demanded more money for the euro bailout fund. This prompted the chancellor to issue an order to ignore the European Commission as much as possible in the future. She also proposed the Euro Plus Pact, which did not envision a role for the Brussels agency. It was a manifesto for a two-speed Europe.

It was also a turning point for Barroso. He forgot his meekness, became more active and began speaking more directly. During a trip to Azerbaijan, he told SPIEGEL: "I expect the leading German politicians to accept the Commission's role." Much has changed since then. Merkel has had to realize that she needs Barroso to assert German interests and create a true fiscal union. If the EU hopes to ensure that all of its members clean up their budgets, they will have to dispense with national sovereignty. The only institution that is qualified to monitor budgets is Barroso's Commission.

The chancellor has also recognized this. Barroso is still annoying, Merkel is now saying, but there are plenty of advantages.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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