In 2004, José Manuel Barroso, the Maoist student leader turned mainstream politician (and professed believer in freedom and democracy), stepped down from the post of Portuguese prime minister to become President of the European Commission.
The very action – leaving the role of head of government of a European nation to become one of three “presidents” of the European Union (the other two being the heads of the European Council and European Parliament) – underscored the degree of power that the unelected EU leadership had accumulated, by that point, relative to that organization’s supposedly sovereign member states. As leader of the European Commission, Barroso arguably wielded more authority than any head of government in Europe, with the exception of the chancellor of Germany. Certainly Barroso the president of the European Commission was a far more potent figure than Barroso the premier of Portugal.
Although Barroso, on completing his second term as president of the European Commission, would maintain that he harbored no desire to see the EU evolve into a superstate, his own statements and actions while in office seemed – to put it mildly – to belie that claim.
In 2007, for example, he said: “Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.” He added, paradoxically, “What we have is the first non-imperial empire.” In 2010, sounding very much like the Maoist he had once been (and supposedly no longer was), he expressed outright disdain for elective government, saying that “decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.”
Two years later, declaring the need to “move toward a federation of nation states” and to “move to common supervisory decisions,” Barroso announced plans for a European banking union that would subordinate every financial institution in the eurozone to the European Central Bank – a clear step toward even greater power for Europe’s unelected masters in Brussels and toward even greater weakening of the authority of elected national legislatures and heads of government. Of course, he had no intention of asking the people of Europe whether they approved of such a move. The next year, he reiterated the need for increased “integration,” for more “federalism.”
After Irish citizens, in a 2008 referendum, rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, formerly known as the EU Constitution, Barroso issued an absurdly counterfactual statement saying that “this vote should not be seen as a vote against the EU” – and saw to it that the Irish were made to vote again. (The second time, they cast their ballots the “right way.”)
It was on Barroso’s watch that Silvio Berlusconi, the elected prime minister of Italy, was replaced, in 2011, with one of Barroso’s own right-hand men, Mario Monti, who had never held an elective office. (So that he could serve as prime minister, he was summarily appointed “Senator for Life” by Italy’s ceremonial president.) Like a good EU soldier, Monti proceeded to implement EU policies in that country. The next year, again with Barroso’s blessing, essentially the same thing happened in Greece.
Throughout his tenure, moreover, Barroso responded with anger to criticism of the EU, of the European Commission, of the organization’s lack of democratic accountability. Consistently, he blamed problems that are inherent in the very structure of the EU and the eurozone on the governments – and the citizens – of member countries. When Ireland collapsed economically in 2013, Barroso rejected the idea that the yoking of the Irish economy to those of other countries via the euro had anything to do with it; instead, perversely, he turned the whole situation upside-down, charging Ireland – get this – with causing a problem for the euro.
He is one of those bureaucrats, in short, who act as if – and who genuinely seem to believe that – the people exist for the sake of institutions of government, rather than the other way around. Barroso the EU honcho may not still have been a Maoist, but he still, quite clearly, had the young Maoist’s belief in tyranny.
Certainly Barroso’s own fierce authoritarianism, his extremely aggressive efforts to strengthen the EU’s power over member states, and his adamant refusal to address the inherent structural problems and lack of democratic accountability that make the EU a net negative force in the lives of millions of Europeans, helped lead to the recent vote by British citizens to bow out of the EU. You’ve got to hand it to Barroso, then, for his latest move: having left his EU post in 2014, he accepted the job, in July of this year, of non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International (GSI) at €5 million a year. His task? To “help Goldman Sachs as it deals with the fallout from Britain’s exit from the European Union.” Well done, good and faithful servant.