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The Barroso legacy: An academic look back (updated)

Last week, the European Commission published its own legacy report in the form of a 600+ pages document titled “European Commission 2004 – 2014. A testimony by the president with selected documents“, opening the room for the first analyses of the legacy of 10 years with José Manuel Durão Barroso leading the European Commission.

I have started to read the foreword of the testimony, which alone is 40 pages long, and at first sight it remains quite general, descriptive, with just some empirical “meat” for what was going on behind the scenes. The rest is a collection of Barroso speeches and of official Communications published by the Commission during his two mandates.

Given the limited value of the testimony, I want to use this occasion to take a look into academic research in political science on Barroso himself, or on his mark left inside and around the European Commission.

In fact, Barroso himself is a political scientist, and in this 2007 interview he gave to John Peterson, he outlines his path into political science, and how he sees himself as a scholar of comparative politics.

So, what do we know about the political scientist Barroso turned Commission President from a political science point of view?

I could start with Hussein Kassim’s discussion paper (August 2013) which shows how the Commission has been successively “presidentialised” under Barroso. The main mark, and this is something that a number of researchers have shown, Barroso left is the change of the Secretariat General into a kind of presidential office. In close cooperation with Secretary General Catherine Day, who has been in office 9 out of the 10 years of the Barroso Presidency, the central management of the Commission has clearly increased, Kassim’s presentation of empirical research on that is pretty convincing.

But why start with this more managerial look at the legacy of Barroso?

In some ways, it is because that’s probably the most important mark that one can find so far. In fact, academic research on Barroso himself and his policy impact seems scarce, with  Schout and Buirma (2014) being a notable exception. Their assessment of Barroso’s term is mixed, although in essence they still highlight the managerial qualities and his push for politicisation as the main imprints Barroso has left.

Beyond that, you will find the occasional semi-academic commentary, such as this one by Michelle Cini from 2005, showing that Barroso was much more a pragmatist than a visionary. You may find non-academic commentary in academic journals like by former European Parliament President Buzek who sees Barroso’s main contributions as having started unscripted question hours in the European Parliament, having presented a political manifesto at the beginning of his second term and having initiated the annual “State of the European Union” (SOTEU) speech.

You might add to this type of commentary blog posts like my own non-academic writing on this semi-academic blog on Barroso, for instance his dual nature as politician and technocrat. In line with this dual nature, Peterson, who had interviewed Barroso in 2007, wrote in 2009 that, while Barroso seemed to be a stronger President in relation to his fellow Commissioners, the first Barroso Commission seemed to be “an unusually technocratic and faceless Commission” in comparison to it’s predecessors. And, while this commentary relates mainly to the members of the Commission, there is no hint that it wouldn’t apply to Barroso, too.

A similar picture is painted by Dinan (2010) who, following Barroso’s re-elected, simply (and very generally) highlights the (limited) opposition of the centre-left to his re-election as well as the very limited ambitions of Barroso to deal with the Eurozone crisis early on, without attributing any other relevant observations on him as a political leader.

These views of limited policy leadership seems confirmed by Dermot Hodson who finds a lot of reluctance for new regulation in the European Commission in the early years of the crisis (2007-11). And even more recent research by Bauer and Becker (2014), research that suggest the Commission has gained in power during the crisis, comes to this conclusions without mentioning Barroso once – possibly a sign that he hasn’t left much of a mark. Among the few references is the fact that he made a difference in the  climate and energy deal of the March 2007 European Council (see Bocquillon & Dobbels 2014).

So what is the Barroso legacy from a political science point of view?

Not much so far, it seems (please tell me if I’ve missed something important)

A political scientist himself, it doesn’t seem that he has attracted a lot of research attention. One could say that, maybe, the fact that he has presidentialised the European Commission, if not as a person, then at least organisationally, might have paved the way for a much more personalised European Commission under the next President Juncker.

One could also hope that Barroso, now that he is leaving office, will offer his insights into 10 years on top of the Commission for political science scholars who try to understand the role of top-leadership and elites in EU institutions, or who want to trace the actual influence of Barroso as a person onto decision-making within the European Commission and within the European Union in a wider sense, not least in the years of the crisis where he was a permanent member of the European Council.

It would be a pity to leave these types of insights to a potentially upcoming mémoire that Barroso indicated in today’s final press conference (open remarks, Q&A) he would like to write, because the as mémoires they will not be guided by academic interests – and there may be quite a bit we still need to understand about Barroso to understand the past ten years in the “life” of the European Union.

In this sense: Good bye President Barroso, hello President Juncker…! (And the research around Juncker has already begun (here, here, here or here).)

Update: Thanks to Agata Gostynska on Twitter (working at the CER), I have updated this blog post with references to Schout/Buirma (2014) and Bocquillon & Dobbels (2014).

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