EU parliament confirms reformer Barroso as commission president
Ian Black in Brussels
Friday July 23, 2004
"Jose Manuel Barroso was yesterday confirmed as the next president of the European commission, in a strong show of support for a reformer who has pledged to bring the EU closer to its apathetic citizens.
Members of the European parliament voted by 413 to 251 to back the former Portuguese prime minister, despite misgivings about the way he was chosen by EU heads of government after a bitter row last month.
Mr Barroso, a youthful Maoist turned conservative, was supported by centre-right and Liberal Democrat members of the European parliament as well as by British and Spanish Socialists impressed by his consensual style.
But Green, Communist and other Socialist MEPs voted against him because of his support for the war in Iraq and the tough austerity policies he imposed on Portugal while he was prime minister.
The 48-year-old multilingual lawyer, who speaks excellent English, French and Spanish as well as his native Portuguese, has shown that he is sharply aware of the unpopularity and remoteness of the EU, illustrated by the record low turnout in June's European elections.
"The European Union cannot work on autopilot," he told the parliament in Strasbourg. "There is a need for political leadership, for political courage, and I will try to show that leadership."
He now begins the arduous and politically sensitive task of assembling the other 24 members of his supranational executive - one from each of the union's 25 member states.
Britain, along with France, Germany, Spain and Italy, is losing its right to a second commissioner. Tony Blair is widely believed to be preparing to nominate Peter Mandelson to replace Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten in Brussels.
Mr Barroso has impressed observers by saying he will defy pressure from the big member states to give their commissioners coveted jobs.
Germany has been lobbying for a "super-commissioner" to coordinate all economic policy, while France would like the competition or trade portfolios. Officials say Britain would be delighted with the heavyweight internal market portfolio, which covers tax and financial services issues.
"I alone will decide on the division of the portfolios to the commissioners," Mr Barroso said. "That is crucial for the independence and credibility of the institution."
His five-year term begins in November, but he already feels like a breath of fresh air.
Romano Prodi, the outgoing president, has long been seen as a lame duck who wants to return to politics in his native Italy. He had also been repeatedly humiliated in clashes with member states. Nevertheless, he did steer through the launch of the euro and the EU's biggest ever enlargement.
Mr Barroso said eurozone budget deficit rules needed to be interpreted flexibly to ensure they did not stifle faster economic growth.
"Please do not believe in the caricatures of my political profile," he said. "I believe it is possible to combine a market-oriented reformist attitude, so that Europe is most competitive, with a social vision."
He has said he is prepared to sack any commissioners suspected of poor or fraudulent behaviour. "The president must make tackling fraud, waste and maladministration a priority of his term of office," demanded Jonathan Evans, leader of the British Tory MEPs.
Chris Davies, the leader of the British Liberal Democrats, warned that nominating Mr Mandelson would play into the hands of those who claim that the commission is a refuge for failed politicians.
"No one doubts Peter Mandelson's abilities, or his commitment to Europe, but creating the impression that Britain's top job in Europe has been given to one of 'Tony's cronies' would make the battle to win a referendum on the EU constitution much harder."