09/25/2012 12:06 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: "EU rescued people's savings"

Previously published in Metro

European federation, Greek bailout -- and artists. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso remains in the center of the European storm. And, he says, the solution to the current crisis is more integration. But Barroso, a long-time connoisseur of modern art who always fits a museum visit in when he visits a new city, also sees culture as a solution to Europe's woes. Before his interview with Metro, Barroso met with a group of artists that included painters, playwrights, conductors, writers and ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus. These meetings will evolve into a European Assembly of Culture and Thinking next year. "Men and women of culture can make us proud of being European", Barroso - who despite his eurocrat image is convivial and humorous -- told Metro. "Yes, we have a financial crisis, but Europe is very much alive in culture and science." In his State of the Union address last week, Barroso called for European thinkers, men and women of culture, to join the debate on the future of Europe.

You just gave your State of the Union speech. On a scale from one to 10, where do you rate the EU right now?
Five. This is a defining moment, so it can still go much better or worse. I believe it's going to get much better. In terms of the work and commitment of the European institutions, I'd say eight. We're doing everything we can.

Eight, and the average is five. Does that mean that national governments get much less than five?
Most of them are below five. They were not able to explain the situation to their own citizens, and in some cases they were putting the blame on Europe when it's quite clear that it wasn't Europe that caused the problem. It's easier for a national politician to take credit when things are going well and to blame "Brussels" when things go wrong. All the decisions we've taken so far in the EU were taken unanimously by all the EU governments. The problem we have stems from unsustainable debts that were accumulated by some governments who were violating European rules. The problem also stems from irresponsible behavior by some players in the financial sector. The financial sector was and still is subject to national supervision. There were no mechanisms for EU supervision. So the reality is that this crisis was not created by Europe. Europe is not the problem. Some politicians are moving towards populism, nationalism and extremism, saying that Europe is the problem, and to those politicians I give a negative mark. Not the countries themselves - I very much respect the countries. But the politicians who, instead of taking responsibility for the crisis, blamed Europe deserve marks below five.

So there are some national leaders you'd rather not see in Brussels?
Not just leaders. Sometimes it's simply national politicians who engage in this kind of dangerous populist discourse. That's intellectually dishonest. If a national leaders says to a person, "the problems you have now are because of Europe", the person tends to believe it, but it's simply not true! The banking crises didn't start in Brussels, and the European Commission didn't have the necessary powers to supervise the banks.

A Greek businessman recently told me, "we used to be able to afford Mercedes, but now we can only afford a Nissan". Have we gotten used to a standard of living that's simply too high, and should we accept the idea that we have to live more modestly?
It depends on the situation. Remember that there are people in Europe who live in poverty, and they need growth. And unemployment remains high. Some people say that the EU's welfare system is too developed, and that it affects countries' economic prospects. That's not true! Some of the most successful countries in the world, like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, have a very developed welfare state and strong trade unions. The solution is not to dismantle the European social model. The solution is to reduce waste and reform of public administrations so countries can become more competitive. And countries should invest more in science, innovation and education. But of course there's no one-size-fits-all, and Sweden is very different from Greece, but in general governments have to reduce excessive spending.

Your answer to the EU's woes, as you outlined in your State of the Union speech, is a European federation...
Yes, and when I talk about a federation of nation states, I mean a democratic organization of powers in Europe. What happens today is that many problems are dealt with as national. Look at the financial crisis. What happens in one country has an impact on the others, but the governments on their own don't have all the instruments to solve the problem. So, what we need to do is to go beyond the governments - but not against the governments - to have instruments to solve the problems. I know the word federation creates difficulties in some countries, but this would be a democratic federation of nation states. Why? Because we live in the age of globalization and countries on their own aren't able to defend their own interests anymore. I'm not proposing a super-state. I'm proposing a federation to organize our shared powers and make sure we count in the world. And it will help us keep the democracy.

Because what happens today is that the financial markets, which are by definition transnational, are not subject to scrutiny. That's why we need transnational democratic systems as well. These changes would make the EU more accountable and more democratic.

So, your solution to future economic crises is to sidestep the national politicians you described earlier?
We need more supervision of what's going on in the financial sector and more coordination economic policies to avoid the imbalance we have between European countries today. And yes, the answer is to have more integration - not by sidestepping the governments but by working with them. I'm not one of those people who believe that Europe can be built by working against national politicians. I believe Europe doesn't replace countries but through shared powers adds power to what countries can do. Today, if one transaction is done in a country without proper supervision, it can cause a lot of damage to all of us.

The UN Secretary-General can only plead with member states to take action; as we have seen in Syria, they often don't, despite his pleas. You're in a similar situation, having to plead with national leaders. Should the European Commission get more powers?
There are some areas where the Commission can only plead, but we also have some areas where we can make real proposals, and we do. Then there are some areas where the European Commission can take action, for example trade, where the European Commission negotiates with our foreign partners on behalf of our member states. We're the world's biggest trading power. Big corporations from the United States and Russia, and Europe, too, know that they have to respect our rules. In areas where our member states have pooled their sovereignty the EU really matters. But sometimes I do feel like Ban Ki-moon, who makes proposals but can't get the support of the stakeholders, as is the case with Syria. Syria is a basic question of justice: how can we allow someone who kills his own people to remain in power?

Going back to Greece: financial markets are betting that Greece will have to leave the eurozone, and ordinary Europeans want it to leave. Should it?
It's simply irresponsible to suggest that Greece should leave. A Greek exit would be a jump in the dark, and I won't be the person who recommends it, neither for Greece nor for the rest of the eurozone. Provided Greece makes the necessary reforms, we should do whatever is necessary to keep them in the eurozone. It's in the interest of Greece, the eurozone and the EU. If we give the impression that the eurozone is just something where people come and go, it undermines the credibility of the euro. We should give time to the new Greek government to demonstrate that they're ready to make the necessary reforms so Greece can fulfill all the requirements of the eurozone.

Ordinary Europeans feel that the EU is a distance elite project whose goals they never signed up to. What's the answer to this disconnect? More referendums, perhaps?
That's for each country to decide. But what's important to have more debate about Europe, both at the national and the European level. That's why, in the next European elections, I've proposed that we have EU-wide parties. That would give voters the perception that there's a European public space and a European way to tackle problems. We've seen that it's not enough to tackle a problem in one country because that problem has a direct impact on other countries as well. National politicians often suggest that there can be a national solution to European problems. That's not true. EU-wide parties would give us more democracy and more competence.

...and Europeans say, "the EU never does anything for me". This is your chance to tell them what the most important thing the EU has done for them in the past year is!
People can travel freely and work in any EU country they like. But in more concrete terms: what the EU has done in the past year is protect people's savings. We were very close to a major financial meltdown. If it weren't for the EU's actions to support some of the eurozone countries, we could have had a very serious problems in all EU countries. If the countries had had to act alone, the consequences of this financial crisis would have been unpredictable. Look at Iceland. It went bankrupt, but it's outside the EU. If countries inside the EU had been allowed to default it would have had disastrous consequences for everyone.

So without the EU we would have had another 1929 depression?
Probably worse.

Bill Clinton likes to watch baseball; Ban Ki-moon plays golf. Where does your passion for art stem from?
When I was 15 I saw an exhibit and I've been interested ever since. Just last Saturday I was at Dokumenta in Kassel, the biggest art event in the world. It takes place every five years. And art - as well as music and literature -- ties into Europe: it was Europe that allowed Picasso and artists like him to flourish. Thanks to Europe we have modern art concepts like cubism, existentialism and structuralism. In fact, art is one of the reason I'm optimistic about Europe. In Europe there's all this intellectual and creative capacity, and criticism - and self-criticism! We have a capacity to understand what's going on the world, and to adapt. My other interest is football. I don't see a contraction between football culture and "sophisticated culture". The point of life is to love it, and art is a form of life. Recently I read a quote by Picasso. [Gets his notebook, where he writes down quotes and observations.] "Art washes the dust of everyday life from the soul." And here's another one: "History breaks down into images, not into stories." That's important for Europe.

"Art washes the dust of everyday life from the soul"; that's a useful quote for the person in charge of the EU. Two brief questions: what's your favorite film and your favorite football team?
8 ½ by Fellini. Football: Sporting Clube de Portugal, but most of the Portuguese national team!