A Conversation with Former EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso

by Danielle Miller

On September 13, the Institute of European Studies and the Clausen Center were honored to host former Prime Minister of Portugal (2002-2004) and former President of the EU Commission (2004-2014) José Manuel Durão Barroso for a forum on the UC Berkeley campus. The conversation drew an audience of 100 and was moderated by IES Director Jeroen Dewulf and Berkeley Professor of Economics Maurice Obstfeld. During the talk, Barroso focused on transatlantic relations, the global economy, and the future of the EU.

The event opened with a discussion about transatlantic relations. Immediately, Barroso described himself as “very pro-European” and a “committed trans-atlanticist,” emphasizing the compatibility of these labels. In response to rising concerns about the disintegration of US/EU relations under the Trump administration, Barroso noted that, while Trump has taken a hostile and “idiosyncratic” attitude toward the EU transatlantic relations are not entirely broken. 

Barroso then transitioned to discussing the “extreme” damage that a trade war between the US and EU would inflict on the global economy. When asked about the Eurozone debt crisis—the period during which Barroso served as Commission President—he pushed back on the notion that the crisis was created by, or specific to, the euro. Instead, he believes that the euro holds long-term resilience. Barroso also noted that while there has been a recent slow-down in the European economy, recession is a relative term and should not be overblown: a Germany on the brink of recession, for example, does not mean that Germany is not still an economic and social powerhouse on the world stage. When asked by audience members about China, he said that successful trade negotiations between the US and China are possible, so long as the US does not antagonize China and misunderstand the role that nationalism plays in shaping Chinese priorities.

Barroso was then questioned about the moral principles, institutional capacities, and political ambitions of the “EU Project.” When asked to describe the EU’s response to the migrant crisis, Barroso spoke of the EU’s struggles to initiate cohesion between member states’ diverging positions on refugee relocation. Regarding EU integration and reform, Barroso said that the “EU Project” is far from complete, but rather, under “scaffolding” — a work-in-progress, not always beautiful, and “at times frustrating.” Yet, he remains deeply optimistic about the EU’s future and believes that crises in the past have only made the EU stronger.