José Manuel Barroso won a reputation as an excellent communicator during his first term in office as president of the European Commission. But his critics saw him as a man who was much too keen to please the European Union heads of state and government that had appointed him.
In particular, they said he never stood up to the big beasts in the EU jungle – France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Now he has won a second five-year term – not least thanks to the support of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor – the former Portuguese prime minister seems much more relaxed and self-confident in his bright, modern 13th-floor office in the Berlaymont building in Brussels.
Surrounded by modern works of art, and photographs of himself with the great and good – Ms Merkel and Tony Blair to the fore – he is prepared to speak forcefully.
This week’s target is Germany’s reluctance to finalise any form of rescue package for the debt-strapped Greek economy.
All the EU leaders agreed on February 11 to provide “determined and co-ordinated action” to ensure stability of the eurozone “if needed”, Mr Barroso said in a Financial Times interview. “The Commission thinks it is needed now.”
It was a direct retort to Ms Merkel, who said she could not see why any action was necessary to provide financial assistance to Greece.
He went further. While insisting that he was not taking sides with Christine Lagarde, France’s finance minister, Mr Barroso said it was time that the whole subject of “macroeconomic imbalances and competitiveness” within the eurozone was debated. Those countries that had big trade surpluses, such as Germany, should do more to stimulate domestic demand.
That could easily be seen as another broadside. But Mr Barroso insisted that he was not calling for fiscal profligacy, which would be anathema in Berlin. He thinks demand can be boosted by other means, such as pension reforms, relaxing shop-opening times and promoting e-commerce.
“It isn’t that we want to weaken competitiveness in the face of global competition,” he said. “We need to improve the competitiveness of the weaker economies. But stronger domestic demand in countries with current account surpluses would help. We need stronger economic policy co-ordination.”
That means more measures to complete the internal market and resist trends to national protectionism – a side-swipe at France, in particular – tough enforcement of the stability and growth pact that underpins the euro, which Germany wants, and macroeconomic policy co-ordination, which Germany mistrusts.
The president of the Commission, the body that is both executive and bureaucracy for the 27-member EU, chooses his words with great care. He has a sheaf of papers on his lap to make sure that when it comes to statements that could move the volatile financial markets, he does not say anything unguarded.
“We are in uncharted territory,” he said. “So we have to discuss these issues with great care and with a sense of responsibility.”
Germany is very much on his mind, as well as Greece. No deal can or will be done without German support or German participation, he said.
Mr Barroso hopes to persuade the German government and its sceptical public opinion of the need to provide some sort of financial safety net for Greece this week – at the European Council meeting on Thursday and Friday – to give Athens time to implement its drastic budget austerity plan.
“It is not a bail-out,” he said. “We have checked this issue from a legal point of view …But no bail-out does not mean no help.”
It is a deal that can be done but the country with the key is Germany. Mr Barroso is learning to be slightly less diplomatic, and slightly more forceful, in making that perfectly clear.
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