Barroso Faces the German Press

Things are moving along rapidly with José Manuel Barroso and his new European Commission, scheduled to come into office next November 1. As I noted a week ago, Barroso came up with his set of twenty-four portfolio-name pairs two weeks before the deadline he had promised, and yesterday these twenty-four met together in Brussels for a first “getting-to-know-you” session. At the same time, Barroso gave his first interview to the press since being named Commission President last month, which turned out to be a collective interview to reporters from five German newspapers. (Among which Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. Note that this SZ article is not in interview form per se, but instead reports the points Barroso made.) That they happened to be German newspapers was not just a tribute to that country’s position as the Union’s leading population and greatest economic power.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 0.14% MAKES

No, in this case Barroso’s selection of a German forum had far more to do with Germany’s membership of that exclusive club of “net-payers” to the Union, i.e. countries which pay more to the EU than they receive back in monies and benefits of one sort or another. (The other five net-payers are France, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Austria.) For the interview mainly had to do with the current tug-of-war over the EU’s financing, specifically over new budget plans pushed by the current Commission based upon receiving from each member-state 1.14% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) yearly, as opposed to the 1% the EU receives now. That extra 0.14% would mean €16 billion more to spend – and €4 billion of this extra money-tranche would come from the German government alone.

The German government doesn’t think much of this new financing; in fact, reporter Christian Wernicke states Berlin has “categorically refused” such plans. But this doesn’t faze Barroso, Wernicke writes: he’s convinced that neither the Germans nor any of the other “net-payers” can really be serious with their supposed objections. (Indeed, the Portuguese claims that premiers from a couple of these countries have let him know on the sly that keeping to 1% is just a “negotiating goal.” One can speculate and pencil in the Netherlands’ Jan Peter Balkenende among these, considering the gigantic plum he got when Barroso named the Dutchwoman Neelie Kroes to take the competition portfolio in the next Commission.) In any case, Barroso’s object with this interview is primarily to present his argument for 1.14%. His words form this article’s very title: “Europe cannot have great ambitions with few means.” Building a Europe of twenty-five member-states just won’t work with the same money as with fifteen. (And everyone knows that the ten new states are hardly in an economic position – except maybe for Malta – to contribute what their “fair share” would be on the basis of population.) Finally, Barroso reminds Germany that it is uniquely positioned, both geographically and historically, to be “the first trading-partner” of most of these new member-states (again, except for Malta and Cyprus). German companies therefore are profiting enormously from these new commercial vistas and will continue to do so; that means among other things higher tax revenues, so why be stingy and insist on keeping the old 1% contribution?

NO FAST TRACK TO LISBON

The new Commission President also had the opportunity during this press-encounter to discuss other prospective EU business. Interestingly, he reaffirmed his commitment to make the EU’s 2000 Lisbon Declaration a reality – that’s the one that promises to make the European continent the world’s most competitive economic space by 2010. Except that that may not happen precisely by 2010, he admitted – and Wernicke astutely points out that he is at least being consistent here with the stand he took back in 2000 as then-leader of Portugal’s opposition, when he termed the Lisbon Declaration “too ambitious.” Yet at the same time he still declared in the interview that EU states should move forward with the necessary reforms as quickly as possible to try to make that date.

Otherwise Barroso made some points not exactly calculated to ingratiate himself with his German audience. For example, he stated “Europe must not go back to the Congress of Vienna,” which is essentially a dramatic way of saying that he views the EU as not just an inter-state organization but as one whose own institutions (especially, one supposes, the Commission over which he presides) play an important role. And: “The large countries have a lot of influence, but there must not be a hierarchy between the nations.” In other words, no special privileges to the larger member-states – which you might have noticed also tend to be net-payers (Germany, France, the UK).

Admittedly, he has put his money where his mouth is on this last stance already in the choice of his commissioners (discussed already here), where Germany at least did not get the “supercommissioner” it wanted (i.e. a commissioner “more equal than the others”) and France got the rather minor portfolio of transportation. Rather bold behavior, one must say, and rather bold words to put forth in such an interview when at the same time you’re trying to hit someone up for an extra €4 billion.

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