Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Commissarial Speech

Yesterday we had Barroso's first State of the Union speech (though it's not the first State of the Union speech we've had in the EU). The Euroblogosphere's reviews have been very critical (see coverage by the critical Grahnlaw, Eurogoblin; and the neutral-critical Rose, and Charlemagne, for example, though Eva en Europa (in Spanish) has written a good defence). So was it any good?

The State of the Union

The title of the speech caused the most problems; both in the image it conjured of the US State of the Union speech and the Euroblogosphere's (and perhaps also the MEP's) low expectations. When the speech ended, Schulz (S&D) and Kaminski (ECR) exclaimed: You did not mention the state of the union! Indeed, the structure, tone and content of the speech reveals a lot more about the state of the union and what kind of expectations we should have. Because this wasn't a State of the Union speech - it was a Commissarial Speech.

What do I mean by a "Commissarial Speech"? If the style was US-Presidential, then the substance and tone was European-constitutional-monarchial. It struck me as a kind of Queen's Speech; that Barroso is setting out the kind of policies his Commission will strive for, rather than an assessment of the state of the union by a strong executive. In this regard the Commission isn't even as powerful as a European parliamentary cabinet government: though it has formally the same legitimacy, it doesn't have the same, whipped, dependable parliamentary majority that most member states have.

A Step Towards a Parliamentary Europe:

This left its mark throughout the speech, with Barroso talking about a special relationship between the EP and the Commission, of own resources and economic governance. The budget plan of 7 years, recently defended by the Commission, was subject to a compromise to the EP's argument that it should be in line with its term: Barroso proposed a 10 year budget plan, with a halfway break to bring it in line with "both institution's terms". The implied emphasis on Parliament was again shown when Schulz derided the speech as being all things to all parties. Though Barroso is justly accused of giving in to the Franco-German alliance, this overlooks the fact that the Commission now needs a parliamentary base to function effectively in an independent fashion (defining "independent" as independent of the Council or a small group of member states). Barroso's appeals to the Parliament aren't just hollow - though it falls into the trap of aiming at a "pro-European majority", something that I've criticised before - if Barroso is to achieve what he has set out to do in this speech, he will need the strong and articulate support of the European Parliament.

After all, on Barroso's big day, the Twitter-sound-bite and idea that became most meme-like was from the EP President Buzek:

"This is the first time we have a debate on the State of the Union. It is a step on the road to a parliamentary Europe."

Parliamentary Reactions:

The speech itself actually wasn't that bad, if you dropped your preconceptions about the State of the Union imagery. As Honor Mahony pointed out, it was quite good as a work programme speech (particularly for a Barroso-speech). There will be a Single Market Act to close over 100 legal bottlenecks in the single market, EU Project Bonds to help finance European projects, obligitory mention of green-collar jobs, and proposals against organised crime and to strengthen external border policing. On human rights, abuses outside the EU were specifically mentioned, but unfortunately, the Roma situation was only implied. If Barroso wanted to make a real splash with his speech, then speaking out against the French deportation policy would have certainly got more people listening!

And the reactions of our EP party leaders? Daul (EPP) waffled agreement and included a veiled attack on Ashton when he criticised the EU's invisibility in the Middle Eastern Peace Process (in fact, his speech was so boring that I found myself watching the MEPs in seat numbers 33 & 34 behind in their not-so-secret attempts to read their newspapers). Verhofstadt (ALDE) talked about Trans-European networks and own resources. He also mentioned an 86% support for economic governance in Eurobarometer - blatent spin! Sadly Verhofstadt seems as focused on a "pro-European majority" instead of articulating a coherent party vision for the EU as Barroso. (Numbers 33 & 34 used this time to text someone).

Cohn-Bendit (Greens/EFA) talked about the battle between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism/the Community method, and criticised Barroso for the invisibility of the Commission throughout the crisis. He also oddly talked about the Greek defence budget, which spent €50 billion on weapons over 10 years, and said that it was a waste of money that could be stopped/reduced if Turkey became an EU member state (though noting this can't really add anything to the actual membership debate). Kaminski (ECR) agreed with pretty much all of what Barroso said (it seems to be a regular occurance for the EU's "first official opposition"!), but worried aloud about the effect of regulation on business. Given that Barroso spoke about simplifying regulation and a Single Market Act, this seemed strange to me, but then the ECR have a habit of opining on the cost of regulation at every opportunity to maintain their free market image, even if it's not really an issue.

Binsky (United Left) spoke about the opinion polls and thought that people wanted a more social Europe. Money on education and training was needed, and there should be a ban on bank speculation. Farage (EFD) attacked Barroso as unelected and unpopular compared to his US counterpart and spoke about the unloved EU institutions; he also countered claims of a desire for "more Europe". One of the more listenable and entertaining speeches, even if I disagree with him most of the time.

Schulz (S&D), though I don't like his shouting-speech style, actually gave the best party-leader speech, in my opinion, though this may be because he came after Daul (who cannot seem to give a good pro-government speech to save his life). He demanded a financial transaction tax, and said the PES (the party is distinct from the group) would try and force the Commission to consider it via the Citizen's Initative if it didn't introduce the policy. Pledging to support the Commission against the Council, in what seems to be a constructive-opposition style speech, he also heavily criticised Barroso's Commission for being invisible during the last few months, and for only being "technically active" [my words] through releasing a statement here or there, but not taking any really public action. All parties except the EPP and EFD (I think) spoke out on the Roma.

Schulz made it clear that Barroso would be judged on his progress on the promises in his speech. but this is a bit unfair. Barroso cannot hope to do most of this without strong parliamentary support. It is up to the Europarties to try and articulate their visions for the EU, to stand up and explain the policies and decisions that need to be taken, beyond the empty appeals for pro-European feeling. The European Parliament has won mouch power in the last few years, and it now the strongest supranational institution. Whether or not a parliamentary EU develops or Barroso's policies are adopted will depend largely on the European Parliament.

The question is not if Barroso can do it, but if the European Parliament can deliver.


  1. Eurocentric,

    You clearly show the conflict between a speech on the Commission's Work Programme (which it was) and a State of the Union address (which it wasn't, but was marketed as).

    Underlining the 'special relationship' between the Commission and the European Parliament meant that it was even more directed at the MEPs, who anyway know pretty well what's coming up in their Committees and are fairly blasé.

    This effectively excluded a speech to the citizens of the European Union, as well as themes, concerns and images they (we) could relate to.

    Your headline and post encapsulate this well.

  2. I doubt that if it was a State of the Union address that it would have been much use. People would probably attack it for being low on substance but high on imagery. As a way of "popularising" the EU or connecting with citizens, I doubt it would have much effect, and would be more likely to come across as "playing president". The impression that people in the EU are obsessed with their image and power rather than focused on the challenges people face would just grow wider.