You’d think he’d brought about world peace or discovered a cure for cancer, because the litany of awards he’s collected goes on for pages: a couple of dozen honorary degrees from universities around the world, plus fifty or so sundry international distinctions, ranging from the Transatlantic Leadership Prize of the European Institute in Washington, D.C., to the Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great (Lithuania), from the Gold Medal of the Hellenic Parliament to the Prix European of the Year.
From 2004 to 2014, based in Brussels and Luxembourg, José Manuel Barroso was the president of the European Commission, a post that made him one of the most powerful men on the continent. But he started out in Portugal, where during his college years, in the immediate aftermath of his country’s democratic “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 – which overthrew the longstanding right-wing dictatorship that had begun with António de Oliveira Salazar in 1932 – he was a leader of a Maoist group called the Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, or MRPP (later known as the Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat, or PCTP/MRPP), which was notorious for its alleged involvement in terrorism.
A 1976 TV clip showing the young Barroso is now famous (or infamous) in his homeland. The clip shows Barroso, then a student, at a meeting of the Lisbon University Revolutionary Students Commission. Speaking with an interviewer, he gives a thumbs-up to a proposal that has just been ratified by the commission. According to the less than felicitously translated subtitles, he says approvingly that the proposal aims “on the right direction of the combat, made within a revolutionary structure.” He goes on to speak of the “crisis of the bourgeois Education System” and to describe a recent government action as “anti-proletarian.”
Barroso, who had become active after the Carnation Revolution, was reportedly well known on campus for committing acts of petty revolutionary vandalism – writing anti-capitalist slogans on walls and stealing university furniture. Years later, one Portuguese politician who had known Barroso in his student days told the BBC that he had been “very radical, hard-working and ambition” back then, but that he had “no strong convictions on anything” and was driven not by principle but by power.
Indeed, when the Portuguese left failed to win power in the 1970s, Barroso performed a 180-degree quick-change – leaving the Maoist fold in 1980 and joining the country’s major party of the right, the PPD-PSD. Presumably, he was now a devotee not of Beijing-style totalitarianism but of individual liberty and elective democracy. As we will see, there has been very good reason in recent years to wonder about the authenticity of this long-ago conversion.
As in the MRPP, he rose quickly in the party’s hierarchy. From 1992 to 1995, he was Foreign Minister; from 2002 to 2004 he was Prime Minister. If he has any great gift, it is apparently for figuring out how to climb to power.
But the greatest prize of all was yet to come.