José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, appealed for a bigger role for the European Union’s central institutions in tackling the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis, arguing that national governments were unable to negotiate a solution on their own.
In an unusually animated address to the European parliament that was otherwise short on policy detail, Mr Barroso attempted to claw back a central role for the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, arguing bluntly that it was not national governments that should lead deeper economic integration among eurozone members.
“Governments, let’s be frank, cannot do this by themselves. Nor can this be done by negotiations between governments,” Mr Barroso told MEPs at the parliament’s Strasbourg seat. “For all this to work, we need more than ever the independent authority of the Commission.”
Mr Barroso has been criticised by some European lawmakers and analysts for failing to provide leadership – a traditional function of the Commission – during the crisis. But he promised to come forward in a matter of weeks with proposals to reshape the 27-member bloc’s economic management, particularly among the 17 states that use the euro.
The proposals would build on the new budget rules MEPs approved in a vote yesterday, which give the Commission new authority to fine member states that build up excessive debts.
That would appear to pre-empt a parallel effort that European leaders asked Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, to embark on in July.
In recent months, the Commission has appeared increasingly marginalised as have national capitals over how to help debt-laden eurozone members and to equip the bloc with credible tools for tackling the sovereign debt crisis.
The Commission’s weakness has raised fears – particularly in the smaller member states and the parliament – of a bloc where Berlin and Paris, the EU’s traditional heavyweights, dictate policy.
By contrast, many national governments counter that they should be in command because they are popularly elected, and responsible for the taxpayer money that has ultimately underwritten the EU’s bail-outs. Privately, some also question the Commission’s competence.
Still, their reluctance to cede authority to Brussels has at times hindered Europe’s ability to react. A case in point is the plight of the European financial stability facility, the eurozone’s €440bn rescue fund.
Although leaders agreed in July to revamp the fund so that it would have greater flexibility and a bigger lending capacity, those changes have yet to go through because they require ratification by all 17 national parliaments. To the irritation of many, tiny Slovakia has threatened to scupper the entire deal.
“Sovereignty is fine but you cannot allow a small stakeholder in the community to slow down all the others,” Mr Barroso told reporters after his speech, arguing that the delay was deepening scepticism in financial markets about the EU.
He indicated that he would soon push for a majority voting system along the lines of the International Monetary Fund in order to make the EFSF easier to use.
In the parliament, where MEPs have long prodded Mr Barroso to stand up to national governments and defend Brussels’ primacy, his speech was warmly received.
“The new assertiveness of the European Commission gives us hope that weak intergovernmental forms of political co-operation will be discarded,” said Andrew Duff, a member of the Liberal Democrats, who has called for a more federal Europe.
One parliamentary aide put it more succinctly, saying: “It sounded like the beginning of a fightback.”
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