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José Manuel Barroso: “How is Britain so open to the world, but so closed to Europe?”

Outside Europe, Britain will be reduced to the role of a “Norway or Switzerland”, warns the president of the European Commission.

President José Manuel Barroso being interviewed by David Miliband
President José Manuel Barroso being interviewed by David Miliband.

For his guest-edited edition of the New Statesman this week, David Miliband has interviewed José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.

As Miliband observes, that the eurozone crisis has been "an unmitigated disaster for Europeans, and especially for pro-Europeans" and with the eurosceptic argument raging in Britain’s political parties, there’s no better time to seek answers from Barroso, a man at the heart of the Brussels administration.

To read the entirety of the wide-ranging discussion, you’ll need to get your hands on a copy of the magazine but here are a few extracts to be getting on with.

On whether Britain is better off in or out of the EU:

David Miliband: Let’s talk about the UK. The debate in the UK is often about these “monsters in Brussels” who want to take more power from Britain, or dominate decision-making. I wonder if you would echo my experience, which is that other Europeans don’t just want Britain to play a leading role in Europe, but they think Europe is better off with Britain playing a leading role.

José Manuel Barroso: I really think that. Probably rightly, I’ve been called an Anglophile. I believe that Europe without Britain at the heart will be less reform-driven, less open, less international Europe. That is why sometimes when I look at the debate in the UK, I ask myself: “How is it that this country is so open to the world, and apparently so closed to Europe?” It seems a contradiction.

DM: The debate inside the Conservative Party is now in some ways framed by the former defence minister Liam Fox, who said there should be “no terror” for Britain in leaving the European Union. What do you think life would be like for Britain outside the EU?

JMB: I will not comment on internal political matters, partisan matters of Britain. If and when there is a kind of revision, that’s up to the British to decide. What I can see from Brussels is that, and also from a European perspective, I find it a little bit ironic that some people are suggesting for Britain a role comparable to that of say Norway or Switzerland. Norway or Switzerland are two marvellous countries, I very much admire, the most advanced countries in the world in fact with great qualities of life. But I think Britain is expecting a bigger role in the world than small countries.

The fact that some are suggesting for Britain a role that is smaller than the one Britain already has today seems to me a little bit curious. When the prime minister of Britain meets the president of the United States, or the president of China, he has much stronger status and much stronger leverage because everybody knows that Britain is a country that is very influential in the shaping of European policy. The biggest integrated market in the world, the first economy in the world, the biggest donor of development assistance in the world . . .

DM: So in your estimation, the leaders in China have an enhanced relationship with Britain because they’re in the European Union?

JMB: I’ll put it frankly – Britain has more influence in China than Norway or Switzerland, with all respect for the other countries. And one of the reasons being that everyone in China knows that Britain is a decisive voice in the European policy and that its influence and its leverage, it is much bigger because of that.

On the dangers of extremism:

DM: Notwithstanding the Irish referendum result, it must worry you that there are fringe parties on right and left in a growing number of European countries which are arguing basically an anti-European case.

JMB: Yes, of course it worries me. I’ve already stated in the European Parliament that we should not forget that there are old demons in Europe – extreme nationalism, populism, xenophobia. You see in times of crisis that extremist forces, populist forces, have a better ground to oversimplify things and to manipulate feelings.

On the euro :

DM: You’re saying there are no circumstances in which a country could drop out of the euro?

JMB: I’m confident that it will not happen.

On the mutualisation of debt:

DM: Let’s look at one important part of what people perceive to be a banking union, which is some form of debt mutualisation.

JMB: Look, the point is the following: we are in favour of the mutualisation of debt. This will be indispensable if you want to keep a common currency. The reality is that this is not feasible immediately. We have to create the conditions for this to happen.

This week’s New Statesman is guest-edited by David Miliband. The issue focuses on shifts in world power, and includes contributions from, among others, Hillary Clinton, Kevin Rudd, Richard Branson, Tony Blair, Ed Miliband, David Walliams and Russell Brand.

Copies are available on the newsstands from Thursday 12 July and in the rest of the country from Friday 13 July. Single-issue copies can be purchased here.

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