By Philippe Adriaenssens
Seldom in the history of European integration have the EU’s political elites faced a crisis as complex and diverse as the current one. At critical times in the process of European integration, courageous leaders showed the way forward when they mustered the necessary audacity and vision. At the beginning of his eighth year in office, Commission President Barroso may finally have decided that it is time for a new breakthrough.
Back in the 1950s, the Committee around Paul-Henri Spaak elaborated the Rome Treaties in a bid to overcome the lingering euro-pessimism after the French ‘no’ to the European DefenCe Community. When the process of unification stalled again in the 1970s, Altiero Spinelli put it back on the rails with proposals to create a European Union and Jacques Delors drove forward the establishment of the single market in the 1990s.
President Barroso knows all too well that his name will not belong in the list of great European statesmen unless he makes a U-turn to leave a legacy worth mentioning in future history books,
Over the past decade, euro-optimism has steadily sunk to an all-time low. An entire generation of graduates and young professionals grew up never having been inspired by combative and self-assertive political leaders who are overtly and staunchly defending the European cause.
The protracted ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the uncoordinated response to the turmoil in the financial markets, the piecemeal approach to Greece’s looming default and the uncertain outlook for the euro have dealt a serious blow to the Union’s image as well as the boldness of the Commission.
Time and again member states have tried to cure the symptoms but they consistently failed to craft strategic, long-term solutions. The increasing weight of intergovernmental bargaining in decision-making and the creeping come-back of nationalist tendencies led the EU Institutions into an existential crisis they did not cause themselves. Citizens’ trust and confidence in the EU is rapidly fading while third countries are increasingly questioning, if not mocking, its capacity to act.
The Commission, being the guarantor of the Treaties, seems to have realised that attack is the best form of defence against the member states in order to prevent the EU from breaking up.
Until now repeatedly accused of being the lap dog of the bigger member states, Barroso caught MEPs by surprise stressing the need for a ‘federalist moment’ in a previous Strasbourg speech and holding a passionate appeal for the community-method in his latest State of the Union.
He stands now at a turning point where he must choose between his usual, opportunistic approach that avoids confrontation with the member states or radically confronting them with the limitations of national short-sightedness.
Opening the doors to treaty changes and beefing up European economic governance will be decisive in allowing the EU survive its current challenges.
It remains to be seen to what extent the Commission will succeed in unifying the external representation of the euro area, increasing its own resources significantly (such as via a Financial Transaction Tax), accelerating the creation of a fiscal union and possibly boosting renewed cooperation in security and defence policy.
It is up to Barroso, his cabinet and the entire Commission to translate words into courageous actions until the next elections in 2014.
Only if he is successful in fighting against the current eurosceptic mood and inspiring politicians as well as citizens with a vision for the future will Barroso find a place in the gallery of European leaders that deserve to be remembered.
The writer is President of the Young European Federalists and a former Attaché at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs