José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission's president, yesterday described his annual ‘state of the union' speech about the European Union as a call for politicians from across the political spectrum “to come out of their comfort zone” to make a “positive case” for EU integration ahead of elections to the European Parliament next year.
Speaking to a small group of journalists a day after his speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday (11 September), Barroso warned that mainstream politicians who decided to “project a negative message about the EU” would end up “reinforcing the extremes, because, as I said yesterday, people will prefer the original”.
Barroso was referring to an exchange with Martin Callanan, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the EP and a member of the British Conservative Party.
Barroso, nonetheless, said that his unscripted comments to Callanan, which have roused anger in Britain's largest party, were not premeditated. They were, he said, a response to a “criticism that I found completely unsubstantiated precisely when I was making the case for a reformed Europe”.
Callanan had accused the Commission of representing the “vested interests of the European district in Brussels not the people of Europe”.
Addressing Callanan, Barroso said: “Increasingly, your party and your group is looking like UKIP [the UK Independence Party, which argues that the UK should leave the EU] and the Eurosceptic and anti-European group. And I start to have some doubts whether you are going to be elected in Britain or if it is not UKIP that will be the first force in British elections.”
“When it comes to being against Europe, the people prefer, between the original and the copy, they prefer the original,” Barroso continued. “That's probably why they are going to vote more for Mr Farage [leader of UKIP] than Mr Callanan.”
Barroso's intervention in British politics has prompted substantial coverage within the UK, and elicited a testy response from Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservatives' leader.
“The Barroso thing did annoy me, because frankly, you know, his job is to serve the members of the European Union, and, you know, the British Conservatives in the European Parliament are an important party, they are the governing party of the United Kingdom, and he should be respecting their views rather than trying to lecture them,” Cameron said yesterday.
Barroso devoted a considerable amount of his speech to economic reforms at the EU and national level. He also said that the Commission intends “to present, before the European elections, further ideas on the future of our Union and how best to consolidate and deepen the community method and community approach in the longer term”.
“A political union needs to be our political horizon,” he said, describing political union as “the indispensable way forward to consolidate our progress”.
Barroso said that “the speech realised the goal I had: it was to give the narrative for the political discussion that we are going to see, at least for those forces that are pro-European”. In addition to setting out the Commission's agenda for the year, the wide-ranging speech urged the European politicians “to find ways to make [the EU] stronger, internally and internationally” and invoked next year's anniversary of the First World War to warn that “we must never take peace for granted”.
Initial coverage of the speech has been highly fragmented along national lines.
“When I was reading the press,...I thought I had made 28 different speeches,” Barroso said.
A similar fragmentation of debate is likely in the European Parliament election campaign next May, he suggested. He predicted that the election would follow “the historical pattern”, which he described as “a collection of 28 national elections, with Europe as a pretext”.
Past European Parliament elections have been characterised by a low turnout and strong protest votes. He expressed concern that, to win support, that mainstream forces could adopt more Eurosceptic rhetoric. However, he added: “I believe that more and more people are accepting the argument that there is a tendency to nationalise successes and European-ise failure”.
He also suggested that the EU's financial and economic crisis will “paradoxically” help the EU in the long run, because “in the coffee bars of Athens, they talk the politics of Germany and in Germany they talk about finances of Cyprus”.
“The sense of interdependence is there,” he said.