EU Summit: Nomination Dispute Weakens Barroso

By in Brussels

The EU's 27 leaders unanimously backed Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president on Thursday. However, the European Parliament is threatening to block his appointment and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is warning against a "cliffhanger that goes on for months."

Now that the European parliamentary elections are over it's back to business as usual in Brussels. Even though there is only one candidate for the post of European Commission president, the first day of the summit of the 27 leaders was marked by wrangling over the issue.

EU President Jose Manuel Barroso has the 27 governments' backing for a second term.
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EU President Jose Manuel Barroso has the 27 governments' backing for a second term.

The majority of conservative leaders would like Barroso to embark on his second term as soon as possible and on Thursday they gave their full backing to his candidacy. In the end all 27 leaders unanimously voted to back the former Portuguese prime minister. However, the formal nomination will only take place after further talks with the European Parliament.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against a "cliffhanger that goes on for months" and called on the parliament to support Barroso's candidacy when it gathers for its first plenary session in mid-July.

Europe's governments are deeply worried about the powerful movement to block Barroso that has emerged in the parliament. Martin Schulz, the chairman of the Socialist bloc in parliament and a member of Germany's center-left Social Democrats, has warned that Barroso doesn't have the support of the needed majority of members of the parliament (MEPs). Schulz says his bloc was "not willing" to make a decision as soon as July. Meanwhile Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who chairs the Green group in the European Parliament, has already called on the EU Council, the council of ministers from all member states, to drop Barroso.

The president was clearly relieved on Thursday that the 27 leaders had ignored these calls and given him their unanimous backing. Barroso has promised that if he is reappointed he will make the fight against the economic crisis and climate change his top political priorities. "I am extremely proud of the unanimous support," the 53-year-old said on Thursday.

The Council of Ministers refrained from formally nominating Barroso, ostensibly out of respect for parliament. The governments first want to hold talks with the president's opponents.

'His Record Is Poor'

Those who are fighting his appointment point to reasons of procedure, as well as his performance during his first term. First of all, they argue, it would make more sense to wait until after the Irish vote in a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn. Then, once the treaty is in place, the new commission president could be elected under the new rules. They point out that there would be enough time to do so as Barroso's current term doesn't end until Oct. 31.

And then there are the complaints about Barroso's performance. "His record is poor," says Schulz. Barroso is regarded as a procrastinator, someone who is always running to catch up with the zeitgeist. At first he was an advocate of further liberalization of the markets, but then, as soon as the financial crisis reared its ugly head, he suddenly discovered his social conscience. On the other hand, he doesn't seem to have come up with any ground-breaking ideas during his first years at the head of the Commission.

The conservatives need supporters from the other groups in parliament to vote for Barroso because they are still 105 votes shy of a majority.

However, the question now is how serious the Socialists and Greens really are in their threats to block his nomination. The Socialists are too weak to come up with their own candidate and the sharp dip in support for left-wing parties in the recent elections hardly gives them much legitimacy for preventing the nomination of a center-right candidate. Even the few remaining Social Democrat leaders in Europe, such as Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero or Britain's Gordon Brown, have given Barroso their backing. It seems there is no way around a second term for the current president.

Parliament Exerting Power

Someone as experienced in European politics as Schulz is fully aware of this. His resistance to the nomination seems to be motivated by tactical considerations. The vote on the president is one of the few ways that the European Parliament gets to exert any real power. And Schulz wants to be able to play this card. The more he ups the ante, the more he can later achieve for the parliament.

Current European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, who has been a member for the past 30 years, pointed out on Thursday that MEPs were able to secure concessions for the parliament in 1999 and in 2004 in exchange for backing the president. "I could imagine that the leaders of the parliamentary groups are just as clever today," Pöttering said.

Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who will take over the rotating presidency of the European Council on July 1, has already announced that he will hold talks with the political blocs. He hopes that an agreement can be reached by mid July.

That can hardly be much comfort to Barroso. Although he doesn't really have to worry about a second term, the public wrangling means that he will go into his next presidency greatly weakened.

New Pan-European Financial Bodies

The EU summit is also grappling with plans for a pan-European financial authority and preparations for a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland. On Thursday night the 27 leaders approved the Commission's suggestions for a European Systemic Risk Board, as well as other EU supervisory bodies, which would work to prevent future financial crises.

However, the leaders also agreed that the future European supervisory bodies for banks, insurers and stock exchanges, would not have any negative effects on the budgets of the member states. Britain in particular was adamant that the EU financial authorities could not order national regulators to take extra spending measures, for example on emergency bailouts. The EU wants to the new structure to overcome deficiencies in financial supervision which have arisen because responsibility has until now been at the national level.

The Commission's plan would leave the main responsibility for supervision in national hands, but the regulators would have to take more directions in the future from the new European bodies. For example, they would have final say in an arbitration case if national regulators could not come to an agreement about how to supervise a bank which operates in several member states.

Britain's reservations about such a system are shared by Berlin, according to sources close to German government circles. Germany does not agree with the prospect of EU authorities ordering a member state to bail out a failing bank. In other issues of supervision, there would be no objection to decisions made in arbitration cases. The European supervisory body would be supplemented by the risk board, which would oversee the entire financial system and could issue warnings to prevent another crisis. The Commission's plans envisage this body being chaired by the president of the European Central Bank but Britain, which does not use the euro as its currency, has voiced objections to this idea.

The Commission now has until the autumn to hammer out the details of new legislation and will have to consult with both the member states and the European Parliament. The new supervisory system would then be implemented next year.

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