Brian Carney

The godfather of Europe

First the Irish, then the Czechs. José Manuel Barroso is eliminating enemies of the Lisbon Treaty — setting things up for the arrival of President Blair, says Brian M. Carney

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First the Irish, then the Czechs. José Manuel Barroso is eliminating enemies of the Lisbon Treaty — setting things up for the arrival of President Blair, says Brian M. Carney

At first, the European Union’s critics had high hopes for José Manuel Durão Barroso. If Jacques Delors represented Brussels’s unbridled ambition and Romano Prodi its weakness for buffoonery and bumbling incompetence, then this soft-spoken Portuguese lawyer seemed to bring some modesty to the post of president of the European Commission. His appointment, some fancied, showed the institution was finally come of age. And, just maybe, was scaling back its centralising, federalist ambitions.

How naive that all seems now. Barroso this week stands triumphant, having browbeaten Ireland into reversing its verdict on the Lisbon Treaty earlier this month and last weekend persuading the Czechs that resistance is useless. He has done so not with charm and nuance of argument, but through a mixture of bribery, naked threats and intimidation. As a result, he can claim to rank among the most cunning and effective architects of the EU project. His success, by any standards, has been remarkable.

Consider his tactics in the last few weeks. Asking the Irish to vote again was, in itself, audacious — given there was no other reason than that he did not like their first answer. Then, two weeks before the vote, he announced a E15 million aid package for the Emerald Isle’s jobless — in particular 2,400 sacked Dell workers. Here was a form of politically directed state aid acceptable to the European Commission. The message behind the largesse was clear enough: Big Brother Barroso in Brussels would be nice to Ireland, if Ireland was nice to him.

Importantly, if the Irish didn’t like the nice Mr Barroso, they could opt for the nasty one. The day the aid package was announced, he used an interview in the Irish Times to make it clear that Brussels could also hurt the Republic if it had to. When asked whether Ireland would be driven out of the EU over a second ‘no’ vote, he said that of course it would not. But then, in what was a master-class in the language of the veiled threat: ‘There are some doubts now about the future situation of Ireland. Some people have asked me: is Ireland going to leave the EU? For investor confidence, it is important that there is certainty about the future of Ireland in the EU.’ Not, of course, that Barroso was shameless enough to make baseless threats against Ireland in his own voice. So he attributed the quotes to anonymous others. He assured the Irish, in his best Don Corleone voice, that of course they will not be booted out of the EU if they don’t do the bidding of Brussels. But still, better not to find out, non?

Three weeks later, emboldened by Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote, he took a less nuanced approach with the Czechs, who remain — technically — the last remaining holdouts on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Barroso went to Warsaw personally to oversee Poland’s Lisbon Treaty signing ceremony. And with that out of the way, he turned his full attention to Prague, where Czech President Vaclav Klaus has, so far, refused to sign the treaty despite its approval by parliament.

‘It is in the interest of nobody,’ Barroso purred, ‘least of all the interests of the Czech Republic, to delay matters further.’ He added, to be sure the message was not lost in translation: ‘If there is no Lisbon Treaty, there is no guarantee for the Czech Republic to have a commissioner.’ No need for subtleties here. In other words — do as we wish, or find yourself out in the cold. It is a naked and explicit threat.

But while delivering this threat, Barroso took the opportunity to observe that ‘good faith and loyal co-operation are principles of European law and international law’. The reference to loyalty is instructive. In Europe, the test of a Good European is fealty to whatever Brussels has determined is best. President Klaus has all but conceded that he is hiding behind the constitutional challenges to avoid signing a treaty that he fears will in the end be bad for Europe and the Czech Republic.

But dissent is still not tolerated in Brussels, which admits no possibility of a loyal opposition. The Czechs will not hold out until a British general election — Klaus admitted as much last week. So Barroso has won. ‘The train carrying the treaty is going so fast and it’s [gone] so far that it can’t be stopped,’ says Klaus. While many of Barroso’s predecessors dreamt of driving this train, many were too clumsy, brash or self-regarding to take it anywhere near its destination. He has proved more successful than any who have come before.

There is, of course, no urgency, or even any need for a Lisbon Treaty. Barroso wants it because he desires an EU that is capable of doing much more than it currently does. And it looks as if he will indeed get there without ever having to discuss why Brussels needs expanded powers, legal personality or any of the rest. So Barroso, it seems, finds it easy to cajole, bribe and even to bully rather than to persuade. The real danger from an ever-expanding European bureaucracy is that it may soon find itself with enough powers that even these unsavoury tactics are unnecessary. In future, it may suffice just to issue orders. And by then, it may well be run by a President Blair.

And yet Barroso started out so well. He was an Anglophile, an Atlanticist and a reformer who seemed, at first, to have recognised the need to tackle the proliferation of red tape from Brussels. He promised to reduce the size and scope of EU regulation. But whatever progress was made in these regards has been dwarfed by the ever-advancing regulatory apparatus. Has Brussels corrupted Barroso? Or is he little more than old port in a new bottle?

Technically, Barroso has just started a second five-year term. But if the Czechs cave in and the Lisbon Treaty is finally ratified, he may well make way for a new president — and the bookmakers’ favourite is one Tony Blair. President Blair’s power will be greater because of Barroso’s achievements, and it is highly unlikely that he will indulge a Conservative government in its request for certain opt-outs. Barroso’s legacy will be an EU that is stronger than ever — and a new doctrine of ‘good faith and loyal co-operation’ must guide EU members’ relations with Brussels. Cameron will just have to lump it.