Did Barroso Help the EU in Britain?

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There are too few EU representatives on British television, so it was good to seeoutgoing Commission President José Manuel Barroso putting in an appearance on the Andrew Marr show in October.

Barroso highlighted the EU push for a transatlantic trade deal; said Britain is stronger globally within the EU; and pointed out that millions of Britons enjoy EU freedom of movement. These points need to be made more often, as too many British politicians have decided they will gain little personally from being an advocate for the EU.

The trouble is, many Britons’ perceptions of the EU are based in emotions rather than facts. One feeling is that the EU is somehow bossing Britons around. Added to this, the EU appears to magnify Britain’s continuing, incremental loss of international importance.

Tackling this emotional baggage is a lot to ask. But new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has told new Commissioners to be politically active in member states – the final paragraph on page 5 here. So EU representatives need to get the message and tone right.

Barroso’s appearance provides a few lessons. Given how touchy many Britons are now, I think his tone was wrong. He lectured Britain on what it can and cannot do. He also tried to puncture British hubris, saying that the UK depended on the EU for international influence. As a result, I guess he alienated some neutral viewers and confirmed the prejudices of Europhobes. (The headline given to this embedded video hints at the mood of many Britons.)

OK, it’s going to be impossible to change some ingrained prejudices. Perhaps Barroso just felt like taking a swipe before leaving office at people who made his life difficult. But if EU officials want to encourage a more positive attitude in Britain, there are a few things they could do differently.

Avoid sounding officious. It gets up people’s noses.
The appearance followed reports that Prime Minister David Cameron wants to cap the annual flow of migrant workers to the UK, as he worries that his Conservative Party is losing support to UKIP. Barroso said that “any kind of arbitrary cap seems to me to be not in conformity with the European rules.”

This was reported in exaggerated headlines and some apparently false quotes. And the next day Cameron had an excuse for a populist sound bite: “I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to and it’s the British people.”

Barroso could instead have pointed out that migration and its effects depend on national policies as well as EU rules – such as transitional periods for immigration from new member states, and requirements that new arrivals have sufficient means. He could also have praised Britain’s liberal traditions and relative lack of barriers to migrants.

Don’t belittle people you’re trying to influence.
Britain is highly sensitive to its international status, and fantasises about “punching above its weight”. Talking about the fight against Ebola, Barroso noted that Cameron had written to other leaders urging more action – and that outside the EU, the British Prime Minister’s “influence would be zero”. The headlines and tweets focussed on “zero influence” and dropped the Ebola context.

He could have just praised the current British contribution to European diplomacy, and point out how this advances UK-friendly causes such as EU free trade deals. Seven months before the Scottish independence vote, English politicians started to warn Scots of the hazards of going it alone. Many Scots felt they were being talked down to, and support for independence surged.

Don’t set up unnecessary oppositions.
Marr pointed out that Britain’s relatively strong economy is attracting migrant workers. Barroso hit back and said that Ireland was doing better, trying to score a point for the Eurozone versus the UK.

Yes, there has been some triumphalism in parts of the British media recently over its relatively strong economy. But why does the Commission President need to combat this? Given that the context was the effects on migration, it would have been enough to point out that the economic cycles are out of synch – so when other countries grow faster the rush to work in the UK might ease.

Be careful with body language.
Barroso crossed his leg in a “figure-four” position – with ankle on knee. Body language experts say this is designed to display dominance. This sounds like a small point, but it added to an impression of slight haughtiness.

A few days later, Juncker was interviewed on the sidelines of a European Parliament meeting. He gave a factually similar answer on freedom of movement, but suggested adjusting national rules to stop abuses. “I think we have to approach this problem in an open-minded way, but we cannot change the rules,” he said. “We have to discuss this in a friendly way with our British colleagues”. That was a bit nicer.