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.

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.

President José Manuel Barroso being interviewed by David Miliband.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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