On 7 September, José Manuel Barroso is to deliver his first State of the Union Address to the European Parliament. “In his speech,” it says on Barroso’s official website, “the President will give his assessment of where the Union stands and outline the political challenges for the next 12 months” – an exercise established by the Lisbon Treaty and directly inspired by the US president’s annual State of the Union Address to Congress. With one decisive difference: the master of the White House, though running a federalised nation in which the individual states retain considerable powers, is nonetheless the ultimate arbiter of national policy. The head of the European Commission holds no such overall sway: he has to give and take day in, day out, with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and, above all, with the leaders of the 27 member countries.

As a matter of fact, the member states hold the key cards to most of the “political challenges” Barroso is facing, whether it be economic policy coordination to ensure recovery, economic regulation, energy policy or EU budget financing, innovation policy or the Common Agricultural Policy. To be sure, the very fact that the head of the Community’s executive branch is addressing the European Parliament marks a milestone in the evolution of the EU: viz. the ascent of the European Parliament, which now has more and more say in defining Union policies, particularly as regards the environment and public freedoms.

But the EU must not operate under two parallel systems, with the institutions on the one hand, headed by the Commission and Parliament, laying down the legal framework, and the states on the other, hammering out policies to suit their national interests. As US political scientist Charles Kupchan recently pointed out, “less dramatically but no less definitively, European politics will become less European and more national, until the E.U. becomes a union in name only". Nothing could be worse than our leaders pretending the Union is working simply because the treaties give its institutions new powers.

Eric Maurice