‘Not the Time for Divisions in Europe’

Former European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, warns against Brexit as Europe faces challenges on its eastern and southern flanks

The last thing that Europe needs as it grapples with challenges on its eastern and southern flanks is for the United Kingdom to walk out of the European Union, said José Manuel Barroso, a former President of the European Commission.

“The multiple crises Europe is facing right now make the case for more European integration,” said Barroso. “It is certainly not the time for divisions in Europe.”

Britons will vote in a June 23 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who secured a deal from Brussels that revamps the terms of the United Kingdom’s EU membership, is campaigning for his country to remain in the bloc.

Barroso warned that it would “not be wise for Britain to now make a jump in the dark” and leave the EU. A so-called Brexit would be an existential issue for the United Kingdom, he said in an interview at the Atlantic Council’s offices in Washington on March 2.

Barroso stepped down from the European Commission last year after ten years as the President of the EU’s executive branch.

Besides the possibility of a Brexit, Europe is struggling to cope with a historic humanitarian crisis in the form of hundreds and thousands of migrants fleeing conflict mainly in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Brussels, meanwhile, is also preoccupied with saving the euro. The appetite for EU enlargement could diminish in this atmosphere.

Barroso, who oversaw a near doubling of EU membership from fifteen to twenty-eight countries during his ten-year tenure, said the bloc retains its “power of attraction.” The bigger challenge, he said, is agreeing on a unified approach to deal with the migrant crisis.

José Manuel Barroso spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview:

Q: The EU’s membership nearly doubled on your watch. Are you worried that the appetite for enlargement will diminish as Europe grapples with the euro and migrant crises?

Barroso: I don’t think there is a lack of appetite for enlargement. On the contrary, we have seen just recently some of the countries of the Balkans demanding a speed up of the process of enlargement. I think the European Union keeps its power of attraction.

I really believe the problem today is more about how to respond to current challenges like the refugee and illegal migration’s impact on our political systems in Europe. We also have concerns regarding the possible outcome of the British referendum. The danger is not that there will not be further enlargement, the danger is how can we be sure that the European Union will be able to respond to these challenges, enlarged or not.

Q: Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka predicted a discussion along the lines of  Brexit in his country, and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said the bloc has “lost its magic power.” Will a Brexit contagion weaken the European Union?

Barroso: If Britain leaves, which I still believe is not going to happen, the European Union will continue. Countries like the ones you have mentioned will remain in the European Union.

It was interesting that Britain asked for an exception from the rule of ever closer union and it was the only country to ask for it. It means that a contrario sensu, as we say in Latin, all the others accepted it.

[If the United Kingdom were to leave] it would certainly be a defeat for the European Union because one of the most important countries in Europe, and indeed in the world, the UK would no longer be part of our project. I am concerned, but I am still confident because I trust the traditional pragmatism and commonsense of the British people. It will not be wise for Britain to now make a jump in the dark, and so I hope that the majority of citizens in Britain will follow the leadership of [British] Prime Minister [David] Cameron and others who are also making the point about the national security interests of Britain. It is an existential matter for Britain as well and I hope the negative scenario will not materialize.

Q: What are your thoughts on the European Union’s response to the migrant crisis? Most Eastern European countries have rejected the quota system suggested by your successor. Some countries have shut their borders and built fences. What is the appropriate response to this crisis?

Barroso: It has to be something around the idea of sharing responsibility. In the end, there will be an agreement of the Europeans on how to face the challenge posed by the refugees. You have to understand one thing that is not sufficiently mentioned: until now the refugee policy was strictly a national competence. There is not that tradition of mutualization of that responsibility.

For the first time now, because of the magnitude of this challenge, European governments are faced with the need to do something together and all of them accepted that something has to be done together. In the end, the European Union will be able to cope with this matter in a cooperative manner knowing that, of course, in some countries it is more difficult than others because there is not the same experience of multicultural societies.

Q: Are you concerned about the impact that the migrant crisis is having on EU unity and the Schengen’s future?

Barroso: I am concerned, but I think at the end we will find a solution. This is the biggest challenge we have in Europe at least since the end of the Cold War. It is very difficult to cope with precisely because it is something that is putting a lot of pressure on our national political systems. And that is feeding, in some cases, not only euro skepticism, but nationalism and even xenophobia.

Based on my experience of European Commission leadership, Europe takes some time to make decisions, but progressively and incrementally there is a kind of obligation to get a result. The leaders will work for that. What has been extremely important is the clear leadership position taken by Germany and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, in particular, on this matter.

Q: Is there a danger that the pressure on Greece from the migrant crisis will undermine the hard work done last year to keep Greece from falling out of the Eurozone?

Barroso: I think that the EU countries and the European Union as such will do more to help Greece because Greece is already in a very difficult situation. It was very unfortunate that this is putting an additional burden on the Greek economy and the Greek society. So more should be done to support Greece.

Q: We are coming up on the anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea. What are your thoughts on the security challenges Russia poses on Europe’s eastern flank and do the multiple crises that Europe is grappling with right now make it more vulnerable?

Barroso: The multiple crises Europe is facing right now make the case for more European integration. It is certainly not the time for divisions in Europe. Prime Minister Cameron rightly said that the issue of remaining in the European Union is also a national security one. Europe without the UK will be a weaker Europe, and we don’t need that now when we have instability on our eastern flank and also on our southern flank.  At the end it is also about security and geopolitical interests, and that’s why the European Union project is so important. It is quite obvious from my point of view that we are stronger if we are together.

A very important part of European security is linked with NATO. Most of our countries are members of NATO and I am sure that NATO is adapting to the new geopolitical landscape.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: “The multiple crises Europe is facing right now make the case for more European integration,” said José Manuel Barroso, a former European Commission President. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)