Matthew Dancona-David-Rennie

‘Don’t come to a beefeating club if you’re vegetarian’

José Manuel Barroso on Blair, Cameron, Brown and EU club rules

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‘I really like your magazine,’ says the president of the European Commission, welcoming The Spectator to the inner sanctum of his suite on the top floor of the Berlaymont building, the EC’s headquarters.

Euro-schmooze? Of course. But, in the world of EU politics, it is progress of a kind. Imagine, say, Jacques Santer or Jacques Delors steeling himself to praise an avowedly Eurosceptic British magazine. English may be the fourth language of José Manuel Barroso, the former Portuguese prime minister, but he has evidently put it to good use.

So before we can get started on British outrage over federalism, the EU constitution and qualified majority voting, the 50-year-old Commission president is recalling The Spectator subscription he maintained as Portugal's foreign minister in the early 1990s.

Bazza — as his British fans in Brussels call him — reminisces about reading Taki, and explains the walk-on role he played in a ‘Dear Mary’ inquiry, dating back to a 1992 flight he took to Africa with the then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, and the foreign minister of Denmark.

‘I remember Douglas Hurd wrote to your adviser of good manners, Dear Mary, saying: “Look, what should you do when you are travelling with colleagues in a Royal Air Force plane, and you want to go to bed, but they are talking?” And Mary was answering that maybe he should put the lights off progressively like you do in discotheques, or something.’

Back in Lisbon, Barroso spotted the letter in The Spectator and wrote to Hurd. ‘I said: “Dear Douglas, next time, you just ask your colleagues to go to sleep.”’

Before 2004, when Barroso was enthroned as president, few in Britain had heard of this smooth-talking centre-right politician and former law professor. But in the Foreign Office and No. 10, Barroso was already regarded as an old and reliable friend — a staunch ally of Tony Blair and President George W. Bush over Iraq, who had hosted the final council of war on the eve of the invasion (though he was canny enough to hold the March 2003 summit far from home, on the Azores islands, and to stand on the far edge of the group photograph, so that many foreign newspapers cut him out of their pictures).

Now he presides over the Commission at a hugely tense juncture in its history — a so-called ‘period of reflection’. The EU’s constitutional treaty is in tatters. Its Lisbon agenda for market reform has stalled. And, most significantly, the question of precisely what the European Union is for is being asked with ever greater intensity.

Much of Mr Barroso’s energy is presently devoted to entrenching the single market, under siege from the new populist strains of economic nationalism in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Rome. He alludes to the regular phone calls he receives from Jacques Chirac and his counterparts, demanding that the Commission bend EU rules to allow politically driven mergers.

‘I cannot go into the details, but if you imagine the pressures coming all the time to accept this kind of merger. I am always resisting this kind of thing,’ he says, with a bitter laugh. Such nationally led populism, such ‘centrifugal tendencies’ put the single market itself at risk, he argues.

And here’s the rub for Mr Barroso. He is blunt that if Britain wants to fight for free trade inside Europe, it will have to allow the Commission to lead the fight, as a supranational regulator, with the power to beat back protectionist national governments.

‘Without the Commission, you could not fight the current trend of national protectionism going on in Europe. And now I can talk from very concrete experience. If we leave this only to the member states, inter-governmentally, you end up with agreements such as — “OK, you can do this, if you let me do this.” That’s why we need strong institutions, not because of a kind of theological superstate in Europe.’

No less controversially, he insists that, having pushed for EU enlargement, Britain must now give up its instinctive attachment to unanimous decision-making, and accept more majority voting. ‘I believe,’ he says, ‘the rules that exist in the constitutional treaty are basically good, a good compromise.’

Not for the French and the Dutch, who rejected them resoundingly last summer, of course. But for the unabashed president this is a direct quid pro quo as the EU enlarges. ‘It’s obvious, if you want things to work. It’s impossible to be in a club that is so enlarged, and wish for every step [to be endorsed by] a unanimous decision.’

Mr Barroso began his political career as an 18-year-old Maoist student, burning the car of his university rector during the dying days of the Portuguese dictatorship. These days, his politics is that of the club rather than the revolutionary caucus. He appears to see Europe not as a fledgling superstate but as a club of leaders, in which clever, urbane politicians — like his friend Douglas Hurd — achieve their goals with skill and discretion.

He enjoys an easy rapport with Mr Blair — they speak often on the telephone, and Barroso has dined privately with the Blair family on visits to Britain. They are of the same generation, and both have school-age children. Politically, the two men also have in common a faith — mysterious to those who do not share it — that the EU is indeed capable of greater labour market flexibility, and that support for the EU is fully compatible with Atlanticism.

As he smooths his blue silk Hermès tie, smiling frequently, Barroso is the very image of unflappable good manners. But there is a sting in what he has to say — and it concerns Mr Blair’s likely successor.

‘I have a very good relationship with Tony Blair, I appreciate him very much, but I am sure I will be able to establish the same kind of relationship with any leader of Britain — in personal terms I don’t know, but in political terms,’ says Barroso.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is ‘a very intelligent person’, he continues. ‘I have read what he has written and it is exactly our agenda on economic reform.’

With the diplomatic ritual over, the Commission president gets down to business — to delivering a warning in language that will undoubtedly have Gordon Brown spitting nails. ‘I am sure he wants to defend British interests, and it is obvious that the only way to do it is to be at the centre of the club. If I may use the phrase, this is a club — and Britain has a great tradition of clubs. And you cannot go to a beefeaters’ club and say you are a vegetarian. You have no influence.’

Zut alors — as they don’t say in the Treasury. This is surely the first time that our robust Chancellor has been accused of being a vegetarian. And there is more.

Because Britain has not given up the pound, Mr Brown does not attend the meetings of the 12 eurozone finance ministers, where the big decisions are taken. Instead, the Chancellor belongs to the outer ring of so-called ‘Ecofin’ ministers, allowed into the room only after the eurozone meetings are ended — sliding into his seat along with the Slovaks and Latvians and other finance ministers whose countries retain their national currencies. As a mere finance minister, the Chancellor is also excluded from meetings of the ‘European Council’, the supreme decision-making body of the EU where heads of government meet. Reflecting upon Mr Brown’s EU experience to date, Mr Barroso delivers a put-down as devastating in meaning as it is polite in form.

‘I think Gordon Brown will discover, if he becomes prime minister, that the European Council is not like Ecofin,’ Mr Barroso says. ‘Today, what happens is that since Britain is not a member of the euro, in fact it is in the Ecofin that is not — let’s put this politely — as relevant as the euro area, the real decisions are taken in the eurozone.’

The message is unmistakable: once Mr Brown is out of shorts and graduates to big school, he will learn the rules. ‘In the European Council, he will take the real decisions for Europe, and so it is obvious that — I don’t want to personalise this — any British leader wants to defend the interests of his country.’

Earlier this year Gordon Brown enraged the Commission by suggesting that the effectiveness of competition regulations should be overseen by national capitals. Aghast Eurocrats briefed that Mr Brown was giving Paris and other protectionist capitals the chance to undermine the single market.

The Commission president is dismissive. ‘The question is, do national leaders understand the value added by the European dimension and what they also gain by defending and promoting actively a common European interest? I believe that any intelligent political leader of Britain, coming to the European Council, if he does not yet understand it, will understand it immediately.’

The message is, once again: Gordon just does not get it — yet. But he will do once he hangs around with the grown-ups. One is tempted to say that this says more about Mr Barroso’s ignorance of Mr Brown’s determination and willpower than the likely unfolding of events.

Let us put it another way: Mr Brown simply does not believe that the EU can generate jobs and growth, or that EU federalism is dead, or that Europe can be truly Atlanticist. Sorry, Mr President: Gordon (like the majority of his countrymen) does not buy it.

There is a long silence, and then a sigh. ‘Look, the Americans believe it. This question of Atlanticism — President Bush has been here 16 times. He came here to the Commission itself, to where you are sitting now. The world has changed, if you want to cope with globalisation, if you want to defend your national interests, you need a strong regional basis to do it, for very obvious, practical reasons.’

In case Mr Brown is feeling picked on, Mr Barroso is no less firm in his message to the Chancellor’s Conservative rival, David Cameron. The Commission president and the Tory leader have not met, but Mr Barroso is deeply dismayed by Mr Cameron’s plans to pull British Euro MPs out of their alliance with the largest centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, to form a new Eurosceptic bloc.

As a former Portuguese prime minister, Mr Barroso remains a senior member of the EPP. He will not have been entirely displeased when Senator John McCain, the leading Republican contender for the US presidency, delivered a rebuke to Mr Cameron over the EPP withdrawal plan during a recent lunch in Brussels. Senator McCain expressed hopes that British Conservatives would ‘appreciate the support they received from the EPP when they were wandering in the wilderness’.

In public, Mr Barroso chooses his words with care, without disguising his true opinion. ‘I don’t want to comment on what is an internal decision of the Conservative party, but what I can tell you, based on experience and practical evidence, is that now it is a very influential group, because it is one of the biggest national groups in the first political family in Europe, and the European Parliament is gaining increased leverage, in fact.’

Mr Barroso’s election, in June 2004, was a bloody drawn-out battle, with Jacques Chirac of France, and Gerhard Schröder of Germany backing a rival candidate, the wildly federalist Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt. Mr Blair expended considerable energy to get Mr Barroso the job, spending hours on the telephone, calling fellow prime ministers and presidents to lobby for the Portuguese candidate.

His election transformed him into, arguably, the world’s most powerful bureaucrat, with the right to set trade policy for nearly 500 million people, and awesome authority to enforce the rules of the single market.

Last year President Bush experienced the cool blandness of Mr Barroso’s presidential suite for himself, when he became the first US president to visit the EU institutions in Brussels. The American leader was working to mend fences after the Iraq war — but also acknowledging the realpolitik of trade diplomacy with a European bloc that now takes in 25 nations, making Europe the largest market in the world.

When standing next to leaders like Mr Bush, Mr Barroso concludes, size matters. ‘In China today they have much more respect for Europe than before. We still are very small for them, I imagine, but for them Europe is now 500 million people; that is becoming interesting for them.

‘An enlarged Europe is a precondition for a powerful Europe. This is very important, because in some sectors of public opinion in, let’s say, the older member states, there is this idea that Europe is now weaker because it enlarged. This is completely false, completely false. Europe is becoming interesting because of its dimensions.’

Mr Barroso rejects both what he calls ‘a kind of negative nostalgia [for] a kind of “Europe miniature”’ and, he says, the old vision of ‘a super federal state’. He envisages the Commission ‘not as the admiral, but as the pilot’.

But didn’t some of his predecessors — Delors, for one — pride themselves on their admiral’s plumage? ‘Oh,’ he says, with a wave of the hand, ‘when I was a boy, my mother told me it was very bad manners to make comparisons. There were different phases in European integration. I have a great respect for all my predecessors, but today we are in a different situation.’

President Barroso’s term of office lasts until 31 October 2009, and he may stand again. Next year, as the EU celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, President Barroso wants its leaders to sign a ‘declaration of intent’. The intellectual crux of his vision — what he calls his ‘silent revolution’ — is that the EU is the best structure within which its members can deal with the buffeting forces of globalisation. First, he claims, only the EU is big enough to pack a punch in the modern world of power blocs; second, Europe is ‘the missing part of the reality’ between the national and the global, the supposedly indispensable intermediary; third, he and his fellow commissioners can concentrate all their time on defending collective European interests.

‘It is not because we have any sort of superiority, but because we have more time. A prime minister devotes maybe 90 per cent of his time to internal politics, 10 per cent to European politics or international ones. It depends of course, but the Commission devotes 100 per cent of its time to Europe; that’s our job, and that is why the Commission so often brings the ideas and the solutions and the initiatives that are accepted by the member states.’

Well, not always Mr President, actually. Does he not accept that the referendums of 2005 were a wake-up call, that he and his fellow commissioners have failed conspicuously to persuade the peoples of Europe — including the British — that the EU is indeed the best institution within which to face the challenge of the 21st-century world?

‘That’s why I am giving this interview. I have been to Britain several times to explain that Europe now can be a great tool for globalisation. On trade negotiations, this is obvious, the British agenda which is generally speaking for opening markets. There is a much better chance of getting that if Britain appears as a loyal member of the club, active at the centre of the club, than as a kind of reluctant member. It’s true of any group, if you are a reluctant member, people do not trust you. If you are an active member of the club, come in with solutions, your influence is increased.’

Ah, such a clubbable fellow, this Bazza. Charming, brilliant and good company. You leave his presence feeling that if anyone could make this project appealing, it is this man; and that his failure to do so says more about the project than it does about him.

Matthew d’Ancona is editor of The Spectator. David Rennie is contributing editor to The Spectator and Europe correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.