The former head of the European Commission has found a silver lining in the Brexit cloud hanging over Brussels.
Jose Manuel Barroso said today that the UK’s departure shows that the EU is a “union of free countries” rather than a “union of diktat” like the Soviet Union.
Mr Barroso, who led the Commission for a decade until 2014 and is now an adviser to Goldman Sachs, called it the “only benefit” of Brexit.
His comments – made during a public interview at the European University Institute in Florence – come in response to repeated comparisons between the EU and Soviet Union by Brexit supporters.
UKIP MEP Nigel Farage said in September that the European Commission’s approach to the populist governments of Hungary and Poland “must remind them of living under the Soviet communists.”
Hitting back today, Mr Barroso said: “The European Union is not a foreign power in our countries. Our countries are in the European Union, either because they founded it – the six original members – or because they’ve asked to become members of it and they approved it and they ratified it.
“We are not the Soviet Union. We are the European Union. If a country is in the European Union it is because the country decided to be.
“That is the only benefit I can see of Brexit. We are showing the world that that we are free union of countries. If one country wants to leave it can leave.
“That was not the case with the Soviet Union or other old empires. We are not a union of diktat. We are a free union of free countries. This is very important.”
The former Prime Minister of Portugal was also critical of UK political leaders who he said had created the conditions for the Brexit vote through decades of “British exceptionalism” and scapegoating the EU.
“If you attack the European Union all the time and then afterwards you say: ‘Please vote for the European Union’, people don’t understand,” he said.
That could be read as a criticism of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who Mr Barroso clashed with during his time as Commission President over the Conservative party’s increasing Eurosceptic position.
Mr Barroso warned the European Union would not survive if politicians in other member states took the same attitude to the EU.
But he predicted voters in other EU countries won’t follow the UK’s path because they can see the “risks of instability” it brings.
“Until now the Brexit factor has been more of a vaccine than a contagion because people are understanding the risks of instability,” he added.
“Other external factors, like what is happening in the United States and also with Russia, are also somehow provoking more support for European integration because people understand – at least a large part of our population believes – that if we want to count we need to be together. If not, we are going to be relegated to a marginal position.”
Before today, Mr Barroso was most recently in the news after the European Ombudsman called for permission for his employment with Goldman Sachs to be reassessed.
The European Commission gave permission for him to take the role on the condition that he did not lobby the organisation he led between 2004 and 2014.
But it was revealed in February that he had lobbied a Commission vice president on behalf of Goldman Sachs in October 2017.