Was Barroso his own man?

“Not his own man” may be the enduring epitaph of José Manuel Durão Barroso, who steps down as President of the European Commission this week after ten years.

He developed a reputation for opportunism, for blowing with the wind, for basing his instincts on the last person who spoke to him, for not having any strong political convictions of his own.

This may be due to circumstance as much as character. He was nobody’s first choice, but rather a compromise candidate plucked at the eleventh hour after others had withdrawn or been rejected. France and Germany found him inoffensive – and perhaps thought they could control him – while Britain liked his Atlanticist instincts. He knew who his true patrons were, so rarely made policy that risked upsetting Paris, Berlin or London – a sure recipe for ineffectual leadership.

He was renominated five years later, but only because 27 countries could not agree on anybody else, and by then he had made little mark, but no real enemies either.

Ever since Jacques Delors, the Commission’s most effective but controversial leader, Europe’s big countries opted for pliant men, not strong men, at the helm in Brussels. Barroso looked like a safe pair of hands.

He was dealt a weak hand by events in Europe. All the Big Ideas had been done, notably enlargement to the East and the single currency. Barroso was left to pick up the pieces, by making an enlarged EU function properly, by turning Turkey away gently, and latterly by handling the sovereign debt crisis surrounding the euro. Little credit to take, but much to be blamed for.

With the credit crisis triggering global recession, Barroso was left to bang the drum for jobs, growth and recovery – all things that Brussels has little influence over. His record on the single market is patchy at best. His tenure saw little progress, and even some backsliding, on the “Four Freedoms” that underpin the EU market: free movement of goods, services, capital and people. On the world stage, Barroso’s hand was no stronger. But even in areas where the EU Commission has real influence, like energy relations with Russia, it did not impose itself over strong-willed member states like Germany, nor find a role for itself as honest broker. The Ukraine crisis caught Brussels off-guard, while on foreign affairs Barroso was hampered by a weak foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, running a half-built foreign service.

Barroso’s Commission became more technocratic and less politically impactful than any before it. It lost ground to the European Parliament and to the bigger EU countries without regaining its reputation as champion of the smaller member states. This was hardly his fault, more a reflection of the way things were already going. Barroso merely failed to stop this steady decline.

Which, ironically, is just what the bigger countries intended when they chose him. And if technocratic is what you want, Barroso ran a reasonably effective administration under tough circumstances. He did it by centralising power around himself and his secretary-general, Catherine Day, marginalising the role of most other Commissioners and Directors-General. Which is why the knives are out for him now.