Wednesday, February 02, 2005

An "unashamed economic liberal"

Gone are the heady days of the Prodi commission, when anything the fiery Italian president said seemed to guarantee a headline.

Now, says the Financial Times, which has interviewed the new commission president for today’s edition, "visitors to José Manuel Barroso's 13th-floor office at the European Commission in Brussels soon ask themselves a question: what is this man doing here?" "The new Commission president", it observes, "speaks colourless, managerial language about facilitating co-operation in a Europe of nation states."

In other words, he is mind-crushingly boring, so deadly dull that only the FT bothers to report him.

The FT reporter, having managed to stay awake during a 90-minute interview, comes away with the impression that Barroso is "an unashamed economic liberal." And this is the man who wants to increase the EU budget to 1.14 percent of EU member state GDP?

But, if he is boring, at least, according to the FT, he has "clarity of focus on pro-business reform". Neither Romano Prodi nor him Jacques Santer had this. So, while Prodi would speak of grand federal visions for a government of Europe, and of the European Union's role in the world, Barroso talks of jobs and economic growth.

The interview, by the way, is to mark Barroso's agenda for the EU's spring economic European Council (the FT calls it a "summit") when EU leaders decide what to do "about their hopelessly ambitious plan, drawn up in 2000 in Lisbon, to overtake the US as the world's most competitive economy by 2010." Nice to know that, after all the hype, Lisbon is "hopelessly ambitious".

Now, José Manuel Barroso wants to persuade the EU to drop the empty slogans. Is this the same José Manuel Barroso that Margot Wallström lauded for addressing the EU parliament with the slogans, "Prosperity, Solidarity, Security", adding the "key words" in the plenary debate: "balance, sustainability, delivery, social agenda, citizens, Lisbon agenda, competitiveness, focus"? Or are there two José Manuel Barrosos?

Anyhow, this "unashamed economic liberal" wants to concentrate on three essentials: "We need to make Europe a more attractive place to invest, live and work, we need to spend more on research for growth and we need more and better jobs," he says. Well, he;s made a good start. After being mere prime minister of Portugal, he's certainly got a better job.

And how is José Manuel Barroso going to maker these miracles happen?

At the top of his agenda is the completion of a single market in services, which make up 70 per cent of the EU economy. What he says is that he wants to reduce barriers that make it difficult for many in services - from architects to caterers - to work across national boundaries. What he will actually do is create a nightmare of red-tape and regulation that makes is even more difficult and expensive for everyone to work.

Furthermore, he is sensitive to the claims of countries including France that full services liberalisation could allow companies from eastern Europe to set up in the west, with lower labour standards. "There is a problem of social dumping inside the EU," he says. And that will be stopped, no doubt. Having price competition amongst professionals? That would never do.

On competition policy, he stands behind his board lady, Neelie Kroes, the EU competition commissioner, and her scepticism towards Franco-German rhetoric about the creation of "European industrial champions".

"There is a tendency in Europe, faced with increased competition from other parts of the world, to go for interventionist policies," he says. "I'm not against European champions, but they must come out of competition. "When public authorities choose champions, they usually waste public money - they get it wrong."

For Barroso, this "unashamed economic liberal", the third strand of his commission's "economic reforms" should be big spending on regional aid. And although these transfers from Brussels have been questioned by Britain, Germany and some other member states, Barroso hopes to face down "the EU's big paymasters".

Otherwise, he says, “there could be a tendency to re-nationalise regional policy… that would not only be unfair, he says, but could pose a problem in terms of competition policy if member states were seen to be giving market-distorting handouts." Clearly, only the commission is allowed to distort the market.

And, for all that, this "unashamed economic liberal" is not going to touch the Common Agricultural Policy. He is not going to waste political capital on going into battle to reopen a deal secured by President Jacques Chirac in 2002. "I don't think it would be wise to reopen that discussion," he says. So much for "economic reform".

Never mind, though. Despite being "wounded" by the debaçle in the EU parliament over the approval of his commission, in public, José Manuel Barroso exudes "a breezy pragmatism". And we are reminded of another slogan he offered the EU parliament: "Dreams are of no use if we do not map out how we can turn them into reality."

Perhaps he needs to be reminded that one man’s dream is another's nightmare.

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