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At Stanford, José Manuel Barroso touts stronger Europe

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, says the 28-nation-member European Union has enacted fiscal reforms that make it stronger and more united since the continent teetered on the economic brink in 2008.

Mauri Ratilainen Jose Manuel Barroso

EU leader Jose Manuel Barroso said he is hopeful about Europe's prospects after 'painful but necessary' economic reforms.

Europe is benefiting from tough, painful economic reforms in the wake of the 2008 downturn, according to the leader of the European Union.

"Europe had to evolve dramatically because reality forced it to," said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, in a May 1 talk on campus. "This change came about with the economic and financial crisis initiated with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers back in 2008, and that has caused me many sleepless nights."

The title of Barroso's presentation was "Global Europe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific." The event was co-sponsored by Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Europe Center and the Center for Russia, East European and Eurasian Studies. The European Commission is the executive body of the European Union.

Barroso acknowledged that the financial meltdown hit Europe especially hard, given the "serious flaws" in the way some countries were running their economies, living beyond their means and lacking the competitiveness required in a globalized world.

The crisis revealed, he added, the "economic interdependence inside Europe," and the fact that the 28-member union did not have the capability to handle large-scale financial emergencies or prevent unsound policies on the part of member nations like Greece.

"So we had to adapt and reform as we have done many times in the European Union," Barroso said.

Economic reforms, regulations

And so, the European Union adopted a more extensive system of economic and budgetary governance to ensure member states stick to their financial commitments and become more competitive. Today, each country sends their national budget to the EU headquarters in Brussels before approving it at the national level, he said.

Barroso added that the EU created a "European stability mechanism," or safety net, worth about $1 trillion to help member states adopt key reforms and assist them in times of crisis. There are also more detailed banking regulations that give the EU more authority over national banks.

"Now the control is exercised at European level through the European Central Bank and there are common rules for banks so that we avoid having to use taxpayers' money to rescue them," he said.

Barroso dismissed criticism that the EU moves too slowly, saying that is inevitable in a system that depends on the will of national governments and citizens to work together rather than coercion.

Still, high unemployment persists in Europe, especially among the young, he said. But he is hopeful about Europe's prospects in the long run.

He added, "We have now returned to growth after some painful but necessary reforms."

Upheaval in Ukraine

With the situation in Ukraine worsening by the day, Barroso said that Europe "stands ready" to support that country in becoming a democratic, prosperous and independent country. He described the Ukrainian crisis as the "biggest threat to Europe's stability and security since the fall of the Berlin Wall."

He said the people of Ukraine expressed a "clear wish to take their future into their own hands and come closer to the European Union" through an agreement that would have given them political association and economic integration.

"Instead of accepting the sovereign choices of Ukraine, Russia decided to interfere, to destabilize and to occupy part of the territory of a neighboring country in a gesture that we hoped was long buried in history books," said Barroso.

He noted, "Europe cannot accept nor condone this type of behavior." Russia's aggression will carry political, diplomatic and economic costs, he said, adding that the issue looms larger than Europe, the United States or even the G7.

"It should concern the rest of the world as well, as it is a direct threat to international law and to international peace," he said.

Barroso served as the prime minister of Portugal from 2002 to 2004. He has been the president of the European Commission for the past 10 years.