European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding has called for the current Commission President José Manuel Barroso to stay on for an unprecedented third term, following a row with the Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
Speaking to EurActiv, Reding, who is also in charge of the EU's Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship portfolio, described another Barroso administration as her "personal wish", and spoke positively of serving again as his Vice President.
Nothing in EU treaties prevents the Commission president from running for a third consecutive term, but it has never happened before.
European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen had not replied to a question from EurActiv asking whether Barroso had plans to run for a third term by the time of this article's publication.
Reding's comments followed a spat with Prime Minister Ponta that began with an interview in Le Monde, in which she termed recent events in Romania a “putsch”, adding that she wouldn’t be surprised if EU countries decoupled Romania's bid from Bulgaria's for accession to the EU’s border free Schengen area.
Accession to Schengen has topped the EU priority list in Bucharest and Sofia for the last two years, but has faced opposition from some member countries.
Ponta said that Reding’s comments mattered little to him, because she was “in election campaign” to be elected as the next Commission President, as EurActiv Romania reported.
Reding’s name has been mentioned before as possible successor to Barroso and candidate of the European’s People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in the current European Parliament.
In an interview with EurActiv Italy, published today, Reding dodged a question about her ambitions to run for Commission president. “For me, being the EU's Justice Commissioner is the absolute dream job in the EU," she said. "I am currently in charge of making Europe a continent of justice and fundamental rights and bringing it closer to citizens."
“Besides, with José Manuel Barroso, we have a very good and active president, who I admire for his strength, his legal mind, his patience and his wisdom in managing the current crisis," she continued.
"He is by the way a couple of years younger than I [he is 56, she is 61]. So my personal wish would be that José Manuel stays on for a third term, because I am sure that we need continuity and stability at the helm of governments in the years to come to continue to make Europe stronger and more resilient to future crises."
"Of course, if he then needs again a vice president, I may consider this because I like this job,” she added.
Barroso, a former prime minister of Portugal, was chosen by EU heads of state and government and approved by the European Parliament as the 11th Commission president in 2004. After his centre-right EPP party won again the European elections in 2009, Barroso obtained the nomination for a second mandate from the Council on 17 June 2009 and secured the support of Parliament on 16 September 2009, for a second five-year mandate.
If he completes his second term, he will be the second Commission president to serve two terms, after Jacques Delors, who in fact even served one year of a third term in 1994.
Redding told EurActiv that she believed the Commission president should be directly elected by the European Parliament, which represents all EU citizens.
The idea that each political family's candidate for Commission president be announced in advance of the next European elections in 2014 is gaining support. The political family which wins the elections traditionally also wins the right to install its presidential candidate.
However, Barroso's selection by his political group may be a hard sell.
Having held the most important executive post in the Union for many years, at a dramatic time, he has come under fire from all quarters.
One of his more vocal opponents, Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt, reproaches him not making adequate use of the Commission’s right of initiative to deal with the eurozone crisis. The centre-left Socialists and Democrats, the second largest group in the European Parliament, call him a “weathervane”.
They claim that he has been “stealing” ideas from other political groups, but depleting them of substance. To a wider audience,
Barroso may appear an uncharismatic head of a bureaucracy, well-paid and out of touch with ordinary people. But he has avoided major controversies and blunders while in office.
When feeling safe, he has tried to “play to the audience” on several occasions – lashing out at British conservatives over the Europzone crisis, or slamming the new Romanian government for having “shaken” the EU’s trust.
Although political families haven't selected candidates yet to lead the next European Commission in 2014, the name of Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, has been raised by some quarters of the EPP's camp.
For the Socialists & Democrats, Martin Schulz seems to be in the lead .
On 12 September, Barroso will deliver his third “State of the Union” speech (see background), his own initiative, largely modeled on the US address. On the same day, the German Constitutional court is expected to rule on the compatibility of the EU’s permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), with the country’s basic law.
On Thursday (6 September), the Commissioners will take a retreat in the town of Overeijse, close to Brussels, and famous for its Leffe beer, to prepare Barrosos’s speech.
While his intentions remain a mystery, Barroso yesterday started a Twitter account: @BarrosoEU. Within hours, his followers list had mushroomed to number some several thousand.
Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said at a press briefing:
"We saw Vice President Reding's nice invitation in the interview that was made by EurActiv. I can assure you though that this is not on the President's mind, and that he is fully focused on his second term and the Commission's answers to the current economic crisis. And really, this is a non-issue for us."