This article was published in the American magazine Newsweek The Accidental Head of Europe
21 September 2009
Who wants to be President of the European commission? In theory it's one of the most powerful jobs in the world. You head the world's biggest economic bloc, receive an automatic invite to G8 meetings, and your calls get taken by prime ministers and presidents the world over. In normal politics, -everyone would be fighting for the gig.
But this is Europe, where the normal rules don't apply. Thus there is currently just one declared candidate in the contest, which will be decided this Wednesday: the current president, José Manuel Barroso. The 53-year-old Portuguese, who entered politics as a youthful Maoist during his country's 1975 democratic revolution, is now a staunch right-wing reformer. -Fluent in French and English as well as Spanish and Portuguese, -Barroso slid into the EU's top job in 2004 as the lowest--common-denominator candidate, and he's had an unhappy time of it ever since. Europe has become bogged down in endless, unedifying votes and fights over its constitution (another round of which is now underway). The Iraq War divided Europeans, as has the rise of an assertive Russia. The glory days of European economic growth are long over, with the continent now being outpaced by China, India, and, in most years, the United States.
This is not all Barroso's fault. His most famous predecessor, Jacques Delors, had to deal with a Europe of just nine, and then 12, nations. Delors also enjoyed support from François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, and, before she drifted into Euroskepticism, Margaret Thatcher. In his glory days, Delors was able to talk left by invoking social protections while acting right; by introducing the single market; by upholding tough competition rules; and by laying the foundation for the euro and an end to national control of monetary, exchange, and interest-rate policy. He also enjoyed good timing: the wall fell and Europe was reunited on his watch.
Barroso hasn't been nearly so lucky. He's had to try to herd 27 governments into line even while being bad-mouthed by Nicolas Sarkozy, who has tried to delay his renomination. -Angela Merkel has reacted furiously when Barroso has dared to criticize dodgy German policies, like state aid to the auto industry or the protection of regional banks. The Poles and the Baltic states have demanded he get tough with Russia, while Berlin has refused to tolerate a word of Kremlin criticism. The free movement of EU citizens has sparked a revival of extremist politics. And ordinary Europeans have gotten so disillusioned with the whole project that voter turnout for the last EU parliamentary elections, in June, fell below 50 percent for the first time ever.
And then came the crunch. Even as many Europeans smugly blamed the economic crisis on "Anglo-Saxon capitalism," it quickly became clear that German banks and Spanish construction firms had made as many wrong bets as Lehman Brothers. Yet Barroso proved unable to offer a vision for how to get out of the credit disaster or to restart economic activity. It fell to Gordon Brown and other national leaders to propose solutions at the G20, where the European Commission barely played a role.
Given such a dismal record, there should be many wannabes vying to replace Barroso. Yet so far he remains basically alone—but even so, his victory isn't guaranteed. Unlike Delors, who was appointed by Europe's national leaders, the EU president now has to be endorsed by the European Parliament. Barroso is the candidate of the center-right group of parties, but they do not command a majority. Five left-led European governments—of Britain, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, and Slovakia—have endorsed him, but socialist M.E.P.s have denounced him, as have many of the 120 new members of the Parliament who are Euroskeptics or extreme nationalists, xenophobes, or anti-Semites. Now Paris has announced that Sarkozy's prime minister, François Fillon, will offer himself for Barroso's job if the Portuguese fails to get a majority in the Parliament vote. With friends like this, Barroso hardly needs enemies.
As for Europe, the probable outcome is more incoherence. Barroso speaks many languages, but he is no orator and has never been able to define a clear message. Now, even if he is reelected, it seems less likely he'll have the confidence to set out decisive new policies. European politics have always been tricky. Now they are a complete mess. And with Barroso likely to become a lame duck from the first day of his new term, it's hard to imagine how they'll get better any time soon.