Interview - Jose Manuel Barroso

Europe - The self-confessed friend of Tony who must now pick up the pieces. Jose Manuel Barroso inte

The task of putting Europe back together falls to a man who has become Tony Blair's best friend. It might help the Prime Minister (though it may not help anyone else) that Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the president of the European Commission, is the nearest thing the Brits have found to their kind of Eurocrat. That's why the French tried to stop him getting the job. That's why when I go to see him in the Commission's cubbyhole near Westminster Abbey he asks me to hold off writing anything for a few days, until after the French referendum. He doesn't want to cause offence - and anything said in London can cause offence on the other side of la Manche.

In any case, it seems as if I'm labouring under a misapprehension. I think I am interviewing him about Europe, while he thinks he has invited me in mainly for me to brief him about Blair and his chances of survival. I'll give it a go, I say, but there's no such thing in my book as a free piece of guesswork. We agree to split it 50:50 - him first.

Even before the French have voted, Mr Europe is infused with gloom. This is his thesis: anxieties are growing across the continent. Poor economic growth is fomenting a dangerous populism that left and right are exploiting. The left is fighting the integration of Europe into world markets; the right is railing against immigration and all European institutions. Both are seeking simple answers to complex problems and are manipulating people's fears. The best answer to populism, he says, is rationalism. The cause of Europe can't be surrendered so easily, and what is needed is leadership. Indeed, I say, but who is going to provide it? Not our man, surely, nor his fellow lame ducks Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder. That leaves . . . Barroso?

When he took the job, this Portuguese Maoist-turned-free-marketeer agreed to drop his middle name ("durao" translates roughly as "tough man") because the entire appellation was apparently too much for the simultaneous interpreters in their Brussels booths. Yet he cannot do without toughness, because that is what is required if the European project is not to collapse. For all the talk of the EU taking too much power from mem- ber states, only one president in the Commission's history has really had the balls to take on national government - and that was "Up Yours Delors", scourge of Margaret Thatcher. Barroso has the same effect on the French, but without the power.

It's time for a spot of needling. How does he feel, being one of Tony's cronies, when from the rooftops of Whitehall, as this country prepares to assume the EU presidency for six months, British ministers proclaim they now have their man? (Anyone who witnessed the lengths to which Blair went a year ago to stop Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, from becoming head of the Commission can vouch for this, and the French and the Germans have not forgiven the Brits.) Barroso protests his innocence. He is not a neoliberal, he pleads. What about his emphasis on social cohesion, development aid and creating jobs? Is this neoliberalism? His depiction is a caricature, he insists. Yes, he is a man of the centre, an active, modernising centre. The European social model is a good thing, but it has to adapt. Very Third Way, methinks. So is he or is he not close to Blair? It's not a sin, but it is worth clarifying. Yes, he concedes courteously, he is. Blair has a solid, good sense that sometimes is lacking in some parts of Europe.

And what of his chum's future? I suggest that he probably won't like what I have to say. Go on anyway, he insists. Blair would not have been able to win a referendum on the constitutional treaty - no chance. Paradoxically, that less ardent European, Gordon Brown, would have made a better fist of it. Blair will struggle to make anything of the British presidency, given that he endorsed George W Bush's attempts to split Europe into old and new. Iraq did for him, domestically and internationally. My interlocutor winces. It was he, as a strongly Atlanticist prime minister of Portugal, who hosted the summit in the Azores on the eve of war.

Barroso is more than a technocrat. He has done his thinking. He knows what he would like Europe to be and where he believes it should go. It cannot stop expanding. It cannot close the door on the Turks, partly because of the message this would send to Muslim countries but also because this has been a 40-year promise. The EU that saved Portugal, Spain and Greece from right-wing dictatorship, that drew the Baltics away from Soviet clutches, still has a purpose. For it to work, it has to be more integrated economically and politically.You cannot have one without the other. Ultimately, however, forces outside the club will determine the outcome. China and India will make Europe act together; if it doesn't, disaster looms for the Union and its member states alike.

So, could the EU collapse? The former academic has to concede that it is theoretically possible, but ultimately, he says, the pressures for integration are greater than pressures for disintegration. He invokes the spirit of European rationalism. But how much of that remains?