In late October Barroso presented his farewell speech in front of the European Parliament where he highlighted the fact that the European Commission has strengthened its powers during his two terms as president. A more powerful Commission, according to him, has been paramount in making Europe more secure and prosperous, whilst also allowing it to survive and adapt to the financial crisis.
The cornerstone of his argument was that the Commission has been instrumental in convincing the member states to create various instruments in the area of economic and financial governance. In a nutshell, he argued that the work of the Commission should be praised as the EU is, ‘now better prepared than we were before to face a crisis, if a crisis like the ones we have seen before should come in the future’.
A general overview of the way the economic governance system of the EU has developed during the last ten years goes some way to supporting Barroso’s argument. The Lisbon treaty significantly enlarged the formal powers of the Commission in the areas of financial monitoring and surveillance over the member states. Through the European Semester the Commission analyses the budget of the member states and their economic reforms, while also issuing recommendations. The European Semester seems at first reading to have given more surveillance power to the Commission in assessing the budget and deficits of the member states. From the Commission’s perspective the European Semester represents the centre of economic governance and the avenue for potential expansion of powers.
At the same time, in his speech, Barroso was also keen to highlight that the Commission has done important groundwork for the idea of a Banking Union, and towards including it in future treaties to lead to stability and growth.
However, there is intense debate whether in practice the Commission has been able to exercise autonomy in relation to the member states and the Council in tackling the financial crisis. Barroso’s two terms at the leadership of the Commission have been characterised by limited or modest ambitions to propose policies that went against the interests of the member states. Even though he took personal initiative on some policies where he built open dialogue with the Council and the member states (such as energy), he was very cautious in associating his name to new initiatives. In the end this led to the widespread view that he exercised a weak and passive leadership of the Commission. Moreover, several arguments support the claim that the Commission has not increased its power in economic governance.
Firstly, the Commission has acted and pushed for initiatives only when they were already agreed by the member states or when it was clear that they would be voted by the Council. Most of the major decisions during the crisis were taken by the European Council spring meetings and ECOFIN. While the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism granted the Commission a central role in raising funds, it was replaced by the purely intergovernmental European Stability Mechanism, where the Commission was virtually left out of the loop.
Moreover, at the height of the crisis in 2010, the van Rompuy Task Force on Economic Governance was more successful in proposing initiatives and setting the agenda than the Commission.
Secondly, the member states have adopted an instrumental view of the Commission, using it as technical body to put together their proposals. For example, in relation to the European Semester the Commission was used as a technical body to define the details of the practical steps that had to be taken in order to achieve the goals set by member states. In this sense, the Commission was also useful for limiting transaction costs in negotiations between the member states. Thirdly, the Commission on many occasions watered down or even withdrew its proposals when they received a red light from the Council. For example, in the context of the lack of support from the member states, the Commission gave up on its proposal for the creation of Eurobonds in favour of Eurobills which implied less financial integration and coordination.
In his farewell speech to the Parliament, Barroso was keen to emphasise the legacy that he is leaving to the next Commission. According to him, Jean-Claude Juncker will have to continue the cautious balancing game with the Council and the member states in order to maintain or expand the Commission’s current powers and implement projects such as the Banking Union. However, in the European public sphere there is an underlying expectation that Juncker will bring authority and vision to the European Commission by pushing forward a more ambitious agenda than Barroso was willing to support.