The former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has dismissed sceptics of the EU’s economic recovery, saying that growth was now on an upward trajectory.
Speaking at a conference in Hong Kong yesterday, he said that European economic expansion was on course thanks to widespread structural reforms.
However, Barroso warned that the rise of extremist parties would pose a serious challenge to Europe’s economic and political order in the years ahead.
Barroso, who was speaking at the 18th annual Asian Investment Conference hosted by Credit Suisse, pointed to an emerging recovery within the European Union, which grew by 0.3% in the last three months of 2014, and 1.3% for the whole of last year. GDP growth in the EU should be between 1.5% and 2% this year, and higher in 2016.
"Some people, including some in Europe, are what I call intellectual glamour of pessimism. They want to show that they are intelligent, predicting the worse [in European Union recovery] every time they meet,” Barroso said.
He added that some of the countries which had performed best were peripheral countries such as Portugal, Ireland and Spain, which saw their economies seriously damaged in the years following the global financial crisis in 2008.
Barroso suggested it was structural reforms in labour and productivity which had helped Portugal, Ireland and Spain to grow in 2014 by 1%, 4.8% and 1.4% respectively.
Various changes enacted since the crisis include labour reforms. Spain, for example, increased its retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2011.
“So my point is the forward … don’t just look at the news of today, but look at the medium term-trend,” said Barroso, who headed the Commission between 2004 and 2014.
But while the European economy was improving, he admitted that one of the biggest challenges in coming years will be the rise of extreme right-wing politics, singling out France’s anti-immigration and anti-euro Front Nationale as one of the biggest threats to EU stability.
“There is some time gap between macroeconomic improvement and the citizens. Citizens are not yet feeling the economic situation and the unemployment range remains extremely high in some of our member states,” he continued.
But Barroso was relieved at the results of French local elections on Sunday, which saw the centre-right UMP making strong gains with 30% of votes in the first round of the poll, although this was only slightly larger than the percentage for Front Nationale. The ruling Socialist party came in third with around 20% of the votes.
In sharp contrast was the extreme-left party Syriza in Greece, which came into power in January, pledging to put an end to the austerity that has hit the country hard. Greece slid back into recession when its economy shrank by 0.4% in the last quarter of 2014.
“I think there has been some progress on the language on the side of the Greek government and I hope that the partners of the other countries are ready to make some gestures [in return],” said Barroso. “It’s true that Greek people went through extremely difficult moments and hardships, but this difficulty was not provoked by Europe as some people say in Greece.”
The problem instead was “provoked by an irresponsible era of the Greek government … who presented a set of false statistics,” noted Barroso, referring to a 2010 report which found that Greece hugely under-reported its budget deficit between 1997 and 1999 in order to join the eurozone.
And for the UK, which is currently arguing for more powers to be repatriated back from Brussels to London, former British prime minister John Major, who was on the two-man panel, offered the current holder of the position a piece of advice: negotiate in private.
“I think the best advice you can give David Cameron is to negotiate in private and not by megaphone – megaphone diplomacy simply entrenches positions on both side,” said Major, who held office between 1990 and 1997.
“The way to reach agreement in Europe is to talk to your European partner privately and find out where there are areas of agreement and where you can bring together a number of partners with the same objectives as you and build a constituency,” he added.