Austerity Politics and the European Future
by Andrew Gavin Marshall, OCCUPY
In June of 2009, the European Parliament held elections – the only aspect of the European Union requiring democratic participation by the people of Europe as they elect MEPs to a rubber-stamp parliament that holds virtually no power. That year, center-right parties across much of Europe “celebrated a resounding election victory.” In particular, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, declared the election results were “an undeniable victory for those parties and candidates that support the European project.”
That same month, Barroso was campaigning to keep his position as EC president for a second term, hosting a dinner in Brussels for European leaders that “transformed into a glorified job interview” where Barroso had to “make his pitch.” The “unique and elaborate process” of achieving and maintaining top spots in the EU’s technocratic hierarchy reflected a “love of complexity,” explained the New York Times. But, more importantly, it reflected Europe’s “reliance on brutal power politics, as countries try to use their votes as leverage, seeking concessions from the next president.”
Barroso, who served as prime minister of Portugal from 2002 to 2004, has attended numerous meetings with the Bilderberg Group: in 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2013. On top of that, he has attended meetings of the Trilateral Commission, including the one that took place in Portugal in 2003 while Barroso was prime minister. He also attended the Commission’s annual meeting in 2007 that took place in Brussels while he was the European Commission president.
Following Barroso’s first term in office as EC president, he was viewed by many critics “as a pragmatist, devoid of convictions,” and a “neo-liberal.” In many countries across Europe, such as France, “being too supportive of the free-market economic model” doesn’t win a lot of friends. With enough room to push either way, as Barroso sought to maintain his job, European leaders were able to leave him “dangling a little longer, putting him in a position of having to accommodate the wishes of the large nations that control his fate.”
Having finally won the vote, Barroso remained uncompromising in his policies toward “open markets,” declaring that upon gaining “reinforced authority,” he would fight against “naked nationalism and extreme populism.”
In a January 2010 op-ed for the Guardian, Barroso wrote, “we need to revisit the structures of global governance” in the face of the “mega trends” of globalization and “the rise of new world players from Asia and elsewhere.” As a result, “our economic interdependence requires careful coordination,” and the European Union, he suggested, was “uniquely suited to take on its leadership responsibilities.”
As the European debt crisis hit the headlines in early 2010, Barroso took time out of his busy schedule to visit the headquarters of the European Financial Services Round Table (EFR), located in Brussels and composed of the CEOs and chairmen of Europe’s largest banks. Speaking to his constituents, Barroso warned that “we are facing the very real prospect of high unemployment,” with the crisis showing “just how important it is to continue to accelerate the modernization of our economies.” Barroso explained that his main priority would be to advance “a structural reform strategy and an exit and recovery strategy” for the EU, requiring “more, not less economic coordination” between member states in order to create “a more competitive, innovative and attractive place… to do business and invest.”
Over the course of the debt crisis, Barroso played an increasingly influential role in shaping the continental response. He executed many behind-the-scenes roles, to the surprise of national leaders and often to the detriment of some elected leaders, whom Barroso himself helped remove from power. Indeed, in 2011, Barroso played a central role in having the Greek Prime Minister replaced with an unelected central banker tasked with pushing through harsh austerity measures and “structural reforms.”
Throughout the debt crisis, the member states of the EU agreed to reform and impose new treaties and agreements, granting Brussels (and the European Commission specifically) far more authority over the budgets of member states and the economic governance of the region as a whole. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Barroso’s Commission gained extraordinary powers. Thus, as the crisis continued, Barroso’s power increased.
Renowned for being a politician of compromise and avoiding confrontation, Barroso shocked the 27-member state leaders of the European Council in a 2012 meeting when he “fired back” at several countries that were objecting to the fiscal policies being pushed by Brussels. Barroso informed the leaders that he was using the power they had given him, saying that “it didn’t make any difference to him if they continued to play their little tactical games.” But, he warned, “If the European Council doesn’t sign off on these recommendations, we’ll have a serious problem.”
As the German publication Der Spiegel noted, Barroso “is one of the few winners of the problems facing Europe’s common currency,” commenting that “with almost every step toward reform that the EU has taken since the crisis began, the jurisdiction of the European Commission has grown.” As head of the Commission, Barroso was “essentially the chief executive of the union,” with more than 32,000 people reporting to him. Among the new powers being transferred to the Commission was an agreement that would require member nations to send their yearly budgets to Brussels for approval before individual national parliaments vote to approve them, “empowering the European Commission to demand changes to national budget plans.”
Europe’s top industrial and corporate executives supported the further expansion of power for the European Commission. In a private lunch meeting in February of 2013, Barroso met with the CEOs and chairman of Europe’s largest corporations (representatives of the European Roundtable of Industrialists, ERT) who expressed their support for Brussels gaining more power, and demanded that the brutal austerity measures across Europe continue and become “more enforceable.”
In late 2013, as member states of the EU sent their national budgets to Brussels to be approved (for the first time), Barroso commented, “this is not about the Commission trying to run national economies in place of governments,” but rather it’s about “developing a European economic governance” to ensure “that what is good for individual member states is good for the European Union as a whole.”
In a February 2014 speech at the London School of Economics, Barroso stated that “full monetary union demands a more advanced and more integrated system of economic governance for the Eurozone countries.” Before the debt crisis, the European Commission could influence member states “on peer pressure alone,” whereas four years later, “we have effective tools to act against budgetary irresponsibility” and “to push for structural reforms – with the threat of strict sanctions.” Brussels has shown to the world that “we are willing and able to do whatever is necessary to make sure the euro thrives [and] to regain the trust of financial markets.”
Two months later, a former adviser to Barroso, Philippe Legrain, accused the Commission of siding with Germany in its bid to impose austerity across the EU, seeing a “strategic” opportunity to enhance its own powers. With the European Union divided between creditor and debtor nations, Barroso’s Commission “chose to strategically align itself with Germany,” so that “the EU institutions have become an instrument for creditors to impose their will on debtors.”
In May of last year, Barroso wrote that “a new world order is being forged,” and the European Union could either “contribute to strengthening it or we miss out on the future… we need an EU that is much more willing to act together, project its power internationally and strengthen its role and influence.” The “lesson” for Europe, he wrote, was for “reform, not revolution,” in which the Commission “remains the indispensible and reinforced focal point of European politics.”
In a speech delivered in Berlin that same month, Barroso acknowledged that the crisis had created “a situation of social emergency in some of our countries,” and that the EU suffered from a crisis of legitimacy “because citizens perceive that decisions are taken at a level too distant from them.” Barroso said that he remembered listening to prime ministers complaining during European Council meetings: “’We know what we have to do. The only problem is that if we do it, we will lose our next elections.’” But those democratic considerations, Barroso stated, “cannot be an excuse not to do the necessary.”
Leadership, he suggested, was “about taking responsibility… not about following popular or populist trends.” The growing “lack of support” for the EU among the citizens of Europe may, he warned, “become a threat to European integration itself.” Thus, Barroso suggested that there was a need to have “a new debate” and lead a public “dialogue” which would give citizens “a real sense of ownership of the European project,” instead of inflaming the angst “of common citizens regarding their perceptions of most institutions and elites in the age of globalization.”
The “fundamental challenge” for the European Union, Barroso stated last June, was to “keep up support for reform as the pressure of the crisis recedes,” and for politicians to “summon the political will to see reform through, even if it is unpopular.”
Barroso’s term as President of the European Commission came to an end in late 2014, with the start of a term for the newly appointed president, Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg and head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers. The New York Times reflected on Barroso’s legacy as president, noting that he helped the euro survive its greatest crisis and oversaw the accumulation of new powers and institutions in Brussels, coupled with a legacy of “anti-European Union populism in many other member states” which was largely “whipped up by mass unemployment and economic stagnation,” in no small measure the result of the Commission’s austerity agenda for Europe.
The Financial Times was given exclusive access to Barroso on his final day in office as president at the end of October 2014. Barroso told the paper that while he is looking forward to his “new life,” he was also sad to go, stating, “This is the kind of job I would pay to do.” Noting that Barroso had steered the EU through the debt crisis, the FT added that he had also been the main champion of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” program, which pushed former Soviet republics (including Ukraine) to forge closer economic ties to the EU. Pushing this program “unwittingly sparked the conflict in Ukraine,” when the former Ukrainian president rejected the EU integration treaty in November of 2013, prompting protests, violence, a technocratic coup and eventually, Russian intervention.
Barroso commented on the situation leading up to Ukraine’s crisis, explaining: “We were perfectly aware of all the risks… I spoke with Putin several times, and he told us how important for him was the customs union, the Eurasian Union, and the specific role he saw for Ukraine. But should we have given up? Should we say, ‘OK, Vladimir, Ukraine is yours, do whatever you want?’ That is the logical consequence of what they are saying. That’s perfectly unacceptable.”
Barroso reflected on his own legacy through multiple crises in the European Union, commenting that one of the major lessons was “that the forces of integration are stronger than the forces of disintegration,” and thus “the show must go on.” He warned, however, “that we have not yet been able to unite the people of Europe.” Acknowledging that the EU’s institutions were “much stronger than before,” Barroso reflected, “it was very hard work.”
Barroso is expected to be rewarded with lucrative jobs in the international world of think tanks and corporate boards, speaking tours and advisory roles. This is the way the Bilderberg Group rewards its members, guests and champions. Barroso is but one of the many global power figures who have traveled through that channel. In that sense, his professional success – which incorporates the wreckage left behind by austerity policies in Europe – reflects the ongoing power and influence wielded by the institutions that helped get him there.