“Let’s not be afraid of the word, we will need to move towards a federation of nation states,” he told the European Parliament. “Today, I call for a federation of nation states. Not a superstate.” This federation, he continued, will ultimately require a new treaty, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel had suggested last week. EU leaders, still traumatized by the painful experience of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in the last decade, have been desperate to avoid this.
“Before the next European Parliament elections in 2014, the Commission will present its outline for the shape of the future European Union. And we will put forward explicit ideas for treaty change in time for a debate.”
Barroso has been hesitant to use the word federal in the past when describing the future direction of the European Union, aware of the images of a power-grab it can conjure up in member states. But in his state of the union addresses, a yearly tradition itself created by the Lisbon Treaty, Barroso has been keen to make the European Parliament happy. He clearly thought that by finally using the F-word, he could do it.
But it was clear that the members were not impressed with Barroso’s words. Many Socialists and Liberals noted that the EU is already a federation of nation states. “No, no no. No federation of nation states, that’s what we have already, that’s the European Council…who are incapable of solving this crisis,” said Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt. “What we need for Europe is not a federation of nation states, it’s a federal union of the European citizens. We need a post-national Europe.”
Barroso was in a tough spot, however. The European Parliament is the only democratically-elected EU institution, and it is supposed to directly represent the interests of EU citizens. And it in large part does so. But on the question of federalism – the unification of Europe into a more centralized ‘superstate’ – the members of the parliament (MEPs) are far from their constituents. The very federalist MEPs may believe they are representing the interests of their constituents by arguing for a strong centralized Europe, but it’s hard to say they are representing the opinions of their constituents.
And the state of the union is, after all, not just an address to the parliament (in the same way that its US equivalent is not just an address to the congress). It is an address to the people of Europe, though surely the vast majority of EU citizens did not see it and do not even know who Jose Manuel Barroso even is.
But if Barroso got up there today and promised MEPs a “post-national” European federation of citizens, EU citizens and their elected national governments would likely not have been as pleased as the MEPs they elected.
One national government who was certainly not pleased with Barroso’s words yesterday was the Liberal-Conservative coalition government in the UK. The EU is the issue that most tears their fractious coalition apart, with the federalist liberals sitting uncomfortably with the anti-EU Tories
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron made an "iron-clad guarantee" during the election that his government would hold a public referendum on any future treaty changes, as he condemned Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for not holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But in reality Cameron is desperate to avoid any such referendum, because he knows that any referendum on the EU in the UK will be voted down by the fiercely Eurosceptic British public, who have been whipped up into an isolationist fervor over the past ten years by the tabloid press and right-wing politicians.
Cameron has already avoided holding a referendum on the treaty changes now being put in place over the Eurozone rules, even though such a referendum was held in Ireland. He excused this by saying the changes will not affect the UK because it is not in the euro (a dubious claim).
But a referendum on the kind of treaty change Barroso is suggesting would be inevitable, given his election promise, and the result of that referendum would be an inevitable no, no matter the actual merits of the change. Where would that leave the UK?
“No one will be forced to come along,” Barroso said today of this new EU he is envisioning. “And no one will be forced to stay out. The speed will not be dictated by the slowest or the most reluctant.”
But there is real concern that the kind of deeper integration that now seems unavoidable if the euro is to be kept alive could lead to an inevitable Brexit – the UK leaving the European Union. Such deeper integration is an absolute no-go for the Conservatives (though it is seen as desirable by their Liberal coalition partners). But the Conservatives also do not want the UK to leave the EU, because they know (and have acknowledged) it would be a disaster for the British economy.
A so-called “two-speed Europe” with such a wide gulf between the eurozone core and the non-eurozone periphery seems untenable. And so for the UK, it will not be enough to just opt out of this project for tighter integration. They are very concerned that even a core unification that excludes them will irreparably damage the single marker.
Martin Callanan, the leader of Cameron’s break-away anti-federalist ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’ group in the Parliament, reflected this concern after Barroso’s speech. “We wish to maintain the integrity of the single market and to make sure your proposals don’t damage that market,” he said.
Even if the UK chooses to opt out of the changes being envisioned (which would likely mostly involve centralised control of financial and economic matters), it will be impossible for the Conservatives to argue that the UK is not affected by the changes taking place on the continent. It will be a fundamental transformation of the single market (and for this reason fellow non-euro-by-choice member states Denmark and Sweden will probably choose to join it).
It is surely an issue David Cameron does not want hanging over his head before the next UK election. And he does not want to go down in history as the man who took Britain out of Europe. But that seems to be exactly the road we are going down.
The highlight of the plenary week for us journalists however came not from Barroso's speech but in the debate that followed it. Here's a video of a hilarious exchange between federalist French Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit and anti-EU British conservative MEP the Earl of Dartmouth. "The time of the earls is OVER!" became the running joke of the week.