The World from Berlin 'Europe Needs a Directly Elected Leader with Charisma'

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso came out with plenty of fine words during his "state of the union" speech on Tuesday. But his blandness is unlikely to increase support for the EU among Europeans, say observers. German commentators are unimpressed.

Members of the European Parliament watch Jose Manuel Barroso's "state of the union" speech.

Members of the European Parliament watch Jose Manuel Barroso's "state of the union" speech.

It seemed inevitable that expectations would be disappointed. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had called his speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday a "state of the union" address, inviting comparisons to the annual speeches given by American presidents.

But Barroso, who is not known for his charisma or public speaking ability, could only suffer through such comparisons. And indeed, his address, which consisted mainly of a list of the EU's recent accomplishments and its future plans, met with a lukewarm response.

Barroso was criticized both for blandness and for not speaking out clearly on issues such as the deportation of Roma in France, which the EU has expressly criticized. Instead, Barroso merely said that "governments must respect human rights, including those of minorities," without mentioning France by name.

In his speech, Barroso also floated the idea of a European bond to finance infrastructure projects. "I will propose the establishment of EU project bonds, together with the European Investment Bank," he said, without going into more detail.

No Agreement Reached

He also reiterated his support for a transaction tax that would provide income for the EU, saying: "I am also defending taxes on financial activities and we will come with proposals this autumn."

The tax has been proposed as a way of funding a financial safety net that would help to cover the costs of fighting a future banking crisis. The proposal was also discussed by EU finance ministers at a meeting on Tuesday without any agreement being reached.

German politicians blasted the idea of an EU tax on Wednesday. "It is absurd," said Hartmut Möllring, a powerful member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in the state of Lower Saxony. "A fourth level of taxation on top of the national, state and local levels would just make everything more complicated," he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. Joachim Poss, acting floor leader for the Social Democrats in parliament, was also skeptical.

Commentators writing in the Wednesday editions of Germany's main newspapers give their verdict on Barroso's speech. The consensus is that Europe needs a more passionate advocate if ordinary people are to overcome their apathy regarding the EU.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It is entirely appropriate for European Commission President Barroso to present an annual report to the European Parliament and to discuss the future plans of his institution, a year after beginning his second term. But did he really need to be so cocky and call it a 'state of the union' speech?"

"It is typical of such annual reports that they consist just of announcements and encouraging platitudes strung together, but otherwise have little new to say. The annoying thing was that he always said 'we' when he meant the European Union, the member states or the Commission. Barroso does not speak alone for the EU. Admittedly, he is fighting for his own importance, because he now has a rival in the form of EU President Herman van Rompuy, and because the Commission was forced into a secondary role during the financial crisis. For that reason, a bit less pomp would have been welcome."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"According to surveys, every second European feels apathetic toward the European Union. …. Therefore, it would be in the interest of the president of the European Commission to ignite a bit of enthusiasm for Europe among Europeans. But passion is not Jose Manuel Barroso's thing. Even in his second term, in which he no longer has to rely on the support of national leaders, he has continued with his bland approach. It seems that the most important thing for him is to avoid conflict with the member states."

"Instead of revealing what he really thinks, Barroso remained true to his nickname of the 'chameleon' and spouted elegant, meaningless phrases about 'green' jobs, the fight against racism and the blessings of the internal market. Such a speech does nothing to reduce the general dissatisfaction with the EU. In order to stand up to the self-centeredness of the national capitals, Europe needs a directly elected leader with charisma."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Barroso is not a strategist who has his own vision of Europe and who can make his vision reality. Simultaneously, he lacks the talent to address the general public directly. Barroso's speech was addressed to the members of the European Parliament, not to the people of Europe -- he merely spoke about them, not to them. Instead, he fuelled the preconception that Europe wants more power and money."

"Nevertheless, the president is right for once when he calls for an EU tax, so that the Union can reduce its dependence on the contributions of the member states. … The most important right of a parliament is to have power over the budget. In the EU, the parliament can only decide about expenditures. As long as the directly elected members have no influence over revenues, they will remain powerless. … This democratic deficit can only be overcome through an EU tax, such as a levy on the aviation sector or on financial transactions."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The European Union is currently in a weak state. José Manuel Barroso can try to spread as much optimism as he wants and paint the EU's future as a global player as rosy as he likes in his 'state of the union' address, but the reality is very different. The citizens of Europe are turning away from the EU and trust it less and less to 'take the action needed,' as Barroso puts it. And the governments of most member states are placing their bets on national interests rather than further European integration."

"Any hopes that the Lisbon Treaty would lead to the closer political cooperation that Europe needs … have been dashed. But without new political glue to hold it together, the EU will fall apart in the long term. Neither the Commission nor the Parliament can prevent that -- only the member states can. Only in the individual countries can the people of Europe be persuaded that the EU is a good thing. … If the EU falls apart, the member states will suffer too: If they stand alone, they will count for little in this world."

-- David Gordon Smith


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