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A Man and his Times

José Manuel Barroso may have the hardest job in Europe, but here's why he thinks he'll prevail

By James Graff, Brussels – With reporting by Leo Cendrowicz/Brussels

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20.02.2006 · TIME

RUNNING THE EUROPEAN UNION IS no task for the faint of heart, especially these days. The constitution has been in limbo since voters nixed it in France and the Netherlands last year. Almost half the E.U.'s 25 member states are flouting Brussels' rules on deficit spending, mostly with impunity. Governments have generally ignored or outright rejected the Commission's recommendations for making Europe "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010. And sometimes, the issues take on a personal edge. When José Manuel Barroso last month became the first European Commission President ever to address the French National Assembly, many Socialists and Communists booed and heckled. "Europe has more need for builders today than for accountants;” Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist deputies-many of whom believe Barroso worships the false gods of the marketplace –said at the time.

You'd hardly guess that Barroso, appointed President of the Commission in 2004, took office with a substantial reservoir of goodwill to draw upon. Only the second Commission President to be appointed from outside the original six nations of the E.U. (the other was Roy Jenkins, all of 30 years ago), Barroso usefully combined in one person a variety of European constituencies. As the former Prime Minister of Portugal – a fascist dictatorship until the 1970s – he was expected to understand the aspirations of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe; as an economic liberal and an Atlanticist – but not an Anglo Saxon – he should have been able to bridge the gap between new and old Europe that opened up before the Iraq war. Above all, he was a fresh face. The two previous presidencies, led by Jacques Santer of Luxembourg and Romano Prodi of ltaly, had left many disappointed and hoping for a new impulse. They're still waiting, more than a year into Barroso's term. Despite his pedigree, he still hasn't been able to stamp his character on Brussels. To an extent, that is understandable; every President of the Commission is a prisoner of his times, and the great transformations of the E.U. –monetary union and the "big bang" enlargement taking in the former communist countries – were a product of the end of the cold war. These are less exciting times, and Barroso has had to stake his presidency on promoting economic growth – a more nebulous goal that means overcoming the objections of key constituencies anxious to protect their privileges.

This week, Barroso's program faces a key test, when the European Parliament debates the services directive, aimed at creating a single market for the E.U. 's €8 trillion service sector. The law will allow a service provider to comply only with the laws of his or her home country when doing business in another E.U. member state. It was this plan that made "the Polish plumber" the symbol of France's fears at the time of the referendum last year, and which brought 60,000 protesters onto the streets of Brussels last March. Labor unions and their supporters see this week's vote as critical, and plan massive demonstrations outside the Strasbourg Parliament. Monica Frassoni, an Italian M.E.P. who co-chairs the Greens and European Free Alliance group, has called the vote "the occasion for the E.U. to choose between a social or neoliberal orientation."

Barroso, 49, affects to be unfazed by the fuss. "From the beginning;" he says, "caricatures of my thinking have been presented for, shall we say, political purposes. I am not an ultraliberal and I never was – though it's hardly a crime. I'm a moderate person and I'm making a rational argument." He dismisses the idea that his program lacks the drama and importance of those of his predecessors. "We are in the 21st century now, not the 1980s or '90s,” Barroso says. “Nostalgia is not the most helpful attitude." Europe's current stasis is deceptive, he suggests, as deep transformations following the E.U.’s 2004 enlargement churn beneath the surface. "The change from 15 to 25 countries creates new circumstances, and it takes some time to adjust the mindset of the people. We're not only larger but more diverse. We have to come of age." Last year there was "some turbulence," Barroso concedes, as the referendums gave impetus to an anti-E.U. "populism." This year, he is convinced, pragmatism will prevail. “It’s easy to put the blame on foreigners, on globalization, on the market, but that's not the honest thing to do. I think right now we're winning this fight for reform," he says. "It's not a traditional ideological battle between left and right. People on the far right are coming with chauvinism and xenophobia, and from the left against markets, against integration, against the need to be more competitive. But against that there's a broad awareness in the European public about the increased challenges of globalization. People see the competitiveness of emerging powers, and that we have to tackle that. So there's reason for confidence."

Barroso himself has never lacked self-confidence. During the heady days of the 1974 Portuguese revolution, he was a student leader of a Maoist group. As a young law professor, he launched himself on a career in the center-right Social Democratic Party, serving as Foreign Minister in the early 1990s. In 2002, on a platform of belt tightening and reform, he led his party out of opposition and into government, and soon joined Spain, then led by José Maria Aznar, in aligning Portugal with the U.S.-British coalition planning to oust Saddam Hussein from the leadership of Iraq. Under the primary sponsorship of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he emerged in mid-2004 as a compromise candidate for President.

Barroso is convinced the services law will pass, though what it will look like once the Parliament's version is reconciled with member states' demands later this year is an open question. Last week negotiators for the Socialists and the conservative European People's Party hammered out a compromise that would ban any E.U. country from putting up discriminatory barriers to foreign service providers-while also giving nervous governments broad rights to block them "for reason of public policy or public security or social security or for protection of the health of the environment." Some business advocates believe that provision effectively guts the directive, but Barroso appears unconcerned. "After the vote, we'll have a directive that fulfills our goals for a truly internal market for services while addressing the social concerns that exist in some of our countries."

Is such optimism warranted? Barroso sees hope for the reform agenda in what he calls a "a courageous reform" by the French government, whose National Assembly last week pushed through a new law designed to encourage firms to hire more young people by allowing companies to easily fire workers under 26 during their first two years on the job. Signs that both the German and French economies are picking up could also give reform a boost. But even if the directive is passed into law, it's hard to believe that Barroso's reputation will be completely cleansed. Even some with no ideological animus against him have judged his leadership ineffectual. "He was viewed originally as a master tactician, but he hasn't managed to become an integrating figure;' says Janis Emmanouilidis, a European integration and policy expert at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich.

Still, those in member states who detect a mote in Barroso's eye might notice the beam in their own. When it comes to economic policy, the Commission has limited powers, it's the member states who have to do the hard work of passing laws and changing attitudes so that Europe is able to compete globally. "If at the end of my mandate, we have 27 states and 500 million people working in a single European market, that will be a great achievement," says Barroso. But the President knows how Europe now runs. "I’m a pilot," he says, "not an admiral." His challenge is that if the European economy sails into clear blue water, 27 admirals will take the credit. If it hits the rocks, they'll blame the pilot.

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