Jose Manuel Barroso: If Europe wants to be respected, it has to take defense into own hands

In election after election, EU politicians have been promising reforms, and the pressure on them is mounting in light of Brexit and growing popular support for Euroskeptics. While Brussels wants tighter integration, many countries in Europe are pulling the other way. So what direction will the EU take? Can there be a ‘two-speed’ Europe? And how has the bloc changed in the past couple of years? We ask former President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. Jose Manuel Barroso,  it's really great to have you on our show today, welcome.

Jose Manuel Barroso: My pleasure.

JMB: My opinion is and has always been that we should try to avoid a kind of fundamental discussions about "more Europe" or "less Europe". We have to be pragmatic. There are areas where we need more integration. There are areas, where, probably, we could reverse some of the legislation that sometimes appears too intrusive. But, frankly, I don't think that it is always helpful to have this kind of ideological, philosophical debate about "more" or "less Europe", because based on my experience of the leading the European Commission for 10 years, what I've seen was that even in times of crisis, the most acute financial and sovereign debt crisis that we had in Europe at least since the WWII, it was possible for the EU to make progress! For instance, we have now some elements of a banking union with common supervisory mechanisms, common resolution mechanisms. It would've been considered unthinkable before the crisis! So, for instance, for the countries that want the common currency, definitely, more integration is needed.

SS: So, yeah, let's talk about the concrete steps. I know that two-speed Europe is being touted by politicians - which would mean that states like France and Germany who want a tighter integration, whoever wants to follow - follows, and who doesn't want a tighter integration, then, you know - they can just...

JMB: Once again, I don't think that this vision is correct.

SS: So, tell me about this. I know that Donald Tusk said "it looks like Iron Curtain to me", so...?

JMB: This is one of the misconceptions that exists about the EU, it is that sometimes... this debate about "two speeds" comes in cycles, already in the 80s there were some ideas about having "two-speed Europe". In fact, the current treaties allow for integration in some areas of the countries that want to do it, provided they keep it united for those who want to join later. You see? Until now that Article was not used, and it's not true, it's completely false that France and Germany always want to go ahead and some others don't want to come. By the way, France voted against the Constitutional Treaty - it was a founding member. It was not the member-states that voted against new treaties, you see? So, there are some... how can I put it? Some prejudice sometimes inside the EU in terms of debate. My experience is that yes, it definitely important that France and Germany are together. If they don't cooperate - there's no progress. But that is not sufficient. We also need the others. It's very important to avoid any kind of directorate in the EU, we need to have all member states respected because...

SS: But you would agree right now it's France and, especially, Germany that's driving the engine, at least economically. I mean, they call the shots?

JMB: They are the two big countries in Ruro area, but, by the way, I can tell you, a country like Poland is critically important for the EU. Critically important! Spain has a very strong say. Italy, of course, also, as a founding member. The Netherlands! My opinion is that it is a mistake to think that there are two or three countries that lead the show. Without them, yes, it's not possible, because they have a very central position. But, it's not enough. So, it's a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to have France and Germany cooperation - and now I'm very happy, personally, because I'm very committed European and I think today we are coming to much better conditions in terms of cooperation between France and Germany.

SS: So you don't think a "two-speed" Europe is a reality or you were just saying that if it becomes a reality it's not a good idea?

JMB: Well, once again, I'm trying to avoid the cliche, the stereotypes. We already have different speeds of integration in the EU today. That's not a new proposal. We have countries that are in Euro area, countries which are not in Euro area. We have countries that are in Schengen - complete freedom of circulation of people - and countries that are not in Schengen. We have countries that have accepted all the Chapters of the Internal and Justice Affairs Chapter and countries that have not. We already have some variable geometry and I believe that with 28 or 27 countries it's unavoidable to have this kind of variable geometry. But what is important is that we keep the common purpose and that no country - if the country's ready and if the country wishes - is prevented of going forward if the country wants.

SS: Okay, let's not go into the black and white discussion, but the EU is suing Hungary, Poland and the Czechs into submission, because they don't want to accept migrant quotas imposed by Brussels...

JMB:It's not imposed by Brussels, Sophie. It was a vote of all the countries. That is another myth...

SS: But they don't want to accept it. That's even worse! If they voted on and they don't want to accept it...

JB: No, that's another myth, sometimes you find it in media. Not in your media, in general. They say "imposed by Brussels", but how can Brussels impose? It's a power of the countries, it's not a power of the European Commission. There was a vote by all the member states, and the qualified majority, very strong majority approved reception of those refugees - and it's true that those countries you mentioned have reservations about it, and what they are putting in question is not Brussels - it's the other governments of Europe. The other governments, you see? Sovereign governments that voted that way.

SS: Sure, but the point of the question was - is EU suing them or not?

JMB: Apparently they are some issues, yes…

SS: So right now, what do we have? Should member solidarity trump member sovereignty - because that 's also a topic that’s acute?

JMB: Once again, sovereignty in Europe is a shared concept. I was a Prime Minister of my country, I was leading European Commission for 10 years, before that I was for 12 years in the government of my country. So, I'm not a Eurocrat, you see?  I am not a Eurocrat, I believe that we should be independent countries, but the independent countries that work together for a common purpose. And so, of course, there's give and take - this is very important to understand. If not, if we continue to look at EU like if the European Union was a country, like, let's say, the United States of America... We don't have a United States of Europe, we are European Union, where we have countries that are independent, some of them very-very old, with many centuries of existence, like my country. But they have decided to share that sovereignty - so the concept of sovereignty in the EU is not the same as it is in Russia or in China or in the United States, you understand? So, of course, there are debates, and what you are saying is true...

SS: But do you see this a problem? Because you're saying "integration" and “tighter integration is not really a problem" - do you feel like some member states want more sovereignty in their political decisions, like, for instance, with migrant quotas? Do you feel like it's an issue?

JMB: Of course there are discussions about difficulties, but that's not all. I believe also in our country, sometimes even in countries, in Russia there are also decisions, aren't they? In the U.S. there are discussions, and they are countries… of course, with 28 or 27 countries you cannot expect... In fact, I will be very concerned if every country will be agreeing every time with everything. In that case it will be an indication that there was a superior Parliament that was imposing something - no! We have these discussions. What is important to understand is the trend.

SS: Look, I just want to reiterate that I'm not a Eurosceptic or Eurocrat, but I'm someone who's observing the process from...

JMB:I 'm trying to give you, based on my experience some keys of interpretation and analysis, that’s the point, I'm not criticising you. You have the right to ask all the questions.

SS: The way it looks to me it's not the same Europe as it was 10 years ago. It seems to me like there are much more problems...

JMB: No, I don't agree with you.

SS: You don't think so?

JMB: And that's the point.

SS: So Brexit for you is not a problem?

JMB: No, Brexit is an important issue. It was a problem. I was not happy with it. But to be honest, Great Britain was always some kind of exceptional case in the EU. Britain did not want to be a member of the Euro, did not want to be member of Schengen, there was what sometime we called a "British exceptionalism". So it's true that is a problem. Having said that, if you look at overall integration of the EU, if you measure it by any indicator - it's more integrated now that 10 or 20 years ago. But precisely because there's integration, there's a movement of integration - there's resistance. It’s true, it’s “dialectic” - if I can use that expression - dialectic resistance - so if there's a movement for integration, there's resistance.

SS: So you don't see the migrant situation as a big problem? Because for us it seems like there's a wedge between the Western and Eastern Europe because of the migrant quota situation. And to us it also seems like Brexit in large part happened because of migrant situation? Do you not feel like the migrant situation could crack?

JMB: Migrant situation is a real problem. First of all, for migrants and for the refugees that's tragedy.

SS: And for the Europeans?

JMB:  Let's put things in context. When some of my colleagues in Europe say "we have a big problem", I say - "Look, our problem is nothing compared to the problems of those people that are suffering and they are dying". This is a tragedy, so we have to help this people.

SS: But do you still see it is a problem for the European states?

JMB: Of course it is an issue that we have to settle. But, by the way, it's now better than 2 years ago. There were some agreements, including with Turkey, I think the problem today is under control. I think Europe has the capacity to integrate the refugees. At the same time, we cannot accept everybody that comes to our countries. All countries have the control over their borders - all countries. So, Europe, also, has the right to control its borders, but, once again, it's willing to be solved progressively, you know. European Union acts by incremental steps, step by step. You cannot expect EU in one day, among 28 or 27 countries, say: "Okay, the problem is solved" - no, you don't expect that, because that is not going to happen. But with some dialogue and some compromise, you'll see, that at the end this issue is going to be settled, and some years from now that problem will no longer exist.

SS: I want to talk about enlargement a bit, because the current  Euro Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker says while he is holding the job, there's going to be no enlargement. But EU membership commissioner says that once Juncker is gone, Union will accept new members in. What do you think? I mean, right now a lot of things are going on in Europe, even though you're making it seem like it's okay - I mean, you got, you know, the integration, the reform, the two-speed thing, the migrant issue - do you think Europe can digest new members, especially if it's members that are not financial viable for Europe?

JMB: Let me just... I don't think everything is fine in Europe. Neither in Europe nor in the any other part of the world. We have many problems. Europe is much much better now than in the past. So I want just to put things in perspective, historically and also geographically - when we see other parts of the world, the wars going on, the hate, the mistrust - I mean, Europe from that point of view is doing much better than other parts of the world. Having said that, I don't want our viewers to think that I'm saying that everything's perfect - no, I'm not saying that, I'm trying to put things in perspective. Now, coming to the issue of enlargement. It's true that there was some kind of enlargement fatigue. It's true, because, look - once again I want to share my experiences. I was President of the Commission between 2004 and 2014. In 2004 we were 15 countries, in 2014 we were 28. It means we have almost doubled the number of countries. So there was some enlargement fatigue, and that explains why my successor said that in the next five years there will be no enlargement. But he did not say that there will be no enlargement in the future, so I continue to think that there will be enlargement in the future. I think some of the countries in the Balkans, if they meet the criteria, and if they feel that they want to join, because EU is a Union based on liberty and freedom. No one is here against its own will. By the way, from that point of view, Brexit is a good example, because if a country decides to leave, it's free to leave. so we are a free Union of free countries. That's very important to understand. It's not like other unions in the past that worked by force, where one dominates the others. We are a free union of free countries - if no countries want to join. I think the EU will have a capacity to adopt new members, yes, I think so.

SS: How do you perceive it in the future, how do you see it? Will the EU's rich countries continuously have to bail out the poor?

JMB: No, there are differences. There are differences among the member states and until now it was possible to find solutions. Sometimes very difficult with a lot of pain and sacrifice. But once again the more pessimists were wrong and the cynics were wrong. I was President of the Commission when those people were telling me that Greece was going to leave the euro. The market sentiment at that time from New York to London was Greece is going to leave. They were wrong. Greece is still a member. And I believe it will remain. I was just now in Athens. So this is to precisely to give an example of how strong the European integration is. It's much stronger than most people acknowledge, and resilience of the Euro area is higher than what is commonly acknowledge. Now, I am a realistic person, I'm not saying that everything is perfect, I'm not saying that there are no tensions. There are tensions. There different levels of development, but also in our countries there are different levels of development. Some of our countries have some parts of their countries that are very developed and others less developed. In your country, Russia, I'm sure that not all the regions have the same level of prosperity, or in the U.S. or China. So, we have to deal with this. The question is, political question is - do we deal better with this alone, each country on its own, or together? That is the point. From my point of view it's better to be together, because, for instance, we have seen over the years a convergence of tourist countries, not-so-rich countries, because compared with other parts of the world Europe is not so poor, but the less prosperous countries have been coming closer to the richer countries, if you look at it historically, from let's say since they became members until now. They have been making progress to the average.

SS: I want to talk about the common European army, and that's something that's being talked about more and more. European security was basically bankrolled by the Americans for 70 years through NATO. Now Trump got elected and people in Europe are like "Oops, maybe we should take care of ourselves". Why did it take Trump to make Europe think that they should be on their own and have defence of their own?

JMB: Look, that was, for instance... what you're saying now, it was basically the message that was put forward by Chancellor Merkel. I very much support what she said. I think she's right. I think the European Union countries should take more responsibility for their defence. Now, does it mean that we should weaken the Atlantic Alliance? I don't think so. What I think is rational and reasonable to do is: the EU countries doing more collectively in terms of defence, but not weakening something that has been working until now.

SS: But that all comes down to money, because Trump says, you know, "I want the members to pay up", because America has been paying most of the money for NATO, and all the member states are like "Ooh, we have to pay now" - plus, having a European Army is a tie down to finances. You really think Europe has that much financial power?

JMB: I going to tell you once again, it's not a secret, but since 80s I've been in many meetings of NATO, representing my country, before being there as President of the Commission. Since 80s, and I don't remember any American president who was not asking the EU countries to put more money.

SS: Really?

JMB: It's not new, yeah.

SS: Then why people make such a big deal with Trump?

JMB: ...From Clinton to George Bush to Obama - very strongly. Mr. Trump does it in his idiosyncratic way, but in fact, the message is the same. I think that from an economic of view, Europeans have enough resources to invest something more in defence,and I think they should do it. Having said this, of course, it's going to be once again incremental and I want to make this point clear - it is not going to be a revolution from today, tomorrow. No. It's going to be incremental. We already see Germany doing more. So there are some ideas that are being circulated, and hopefully, there will be some progress for Europe. Why? Because I believe  that if Europeans want to be respected around the world, it should be not only as it is today,, the biggest trading bloc in the world -  everybody understands that Europe is important in trade terms, but also progressively assume a more stable and clear foreign policy and defence identity.

SS: I just have one last question - I mean, you know that all these sanctions that are put on Russia, they are put on Russia because of Crimea. But realistically speaking, you're very smart man, you know, I know, everyone knows that no amount of sanctions, especially at this point, is going to make Russia give up Crimea. So, what's the point of these sanctions? Are these sanctions out of principle, in your opinion?

JMB: Look, it was not the decision of the European Commission, because these decisions as you know in Europe, in terms of foreign policy are the responsibility of states, of member states, not of the Commission. But I was in the European Summit where those decisions were taken, so I remember very well what was the reason for the sanctions. And the reason was the following: the European countries thought that it was very serious, what happened between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine, member of the UN, a smaller country compared to Russia - so there was a sentiment that the international law has been violated. So, the European countries had to react. What could they do? Military option, of course - that's not an option, thanks God! Nobody wants today to come back to wars. But just to make a statement, a diplomatic states, it will be too weak. So sanctions was a kind of a mid-, let's say, mid-solution that showed our indignation, our condemnation without going too far. At the same time it was said that they were done in the way that was scalable and they could be reversible, provided there was another, let's say behaviour. And in fact, afterwards, an effort was made, among others, by Chancellor Merkel, the so-called Minsk process, where, by the way, I was also invited, but I could not go. But there was a commitment of the European Countries, as far as I know, that if there's a respect by Russia of the Minsk commitments, this issue of sanctions could be looked at again, so I hope that could happen. I'm saying that very sincerely, I have a great respect for Russia, for the country that Russia is, for its history, for its people, for the extraordinary courage and resilience of Russian people. I've said that many times to President Putin and to other very important persons in Russia. Russia is part of the European civilization, so I'm very sad when I see problems between Russia and the European Union. But for that we would like to see - I'm not speaking now out of any official capacity...

SS: Sure, it's your opinion.

JMB: I'm speaking personally: I think it will be important that Russia has a more constructive attitude towards Ukraine, Ukraine's sovereignty, Ukraine's independence, and then based on this we can create confidence and of course sanctions could be, at least, scaled down or even disappear, and we'll have more constructive relationship between the EU and Russia - because I think that would be in the interests of all of our peoples, the Russian people but also the peoples of the EU.

SS: Mr. Barroso, thank you very much for this interview.

JMB: My pleasure, thank you.