Parliament gives green light to Barroso II

Barros II EP confirmation1.jpeg

The European Parliament overwhelmingly approved the new European Commission led by President José Manuel Barroso today (9 February), clearing the way for the EU executive to take office nearly four months behind schedule.

Legislators voted 488 to 137 in favour of the 26-person team put forward by Commission President Barroso, a move that was widely expected after the Portuguese replaced one of his original nominees last month following MEPs' opposition.

Seventy-two lawmakers abstained.

The Commission, responsible for proposing and enforcing laws across the 27 member states of the European Union, formally begins its five-year mandate at midnight today, a spokesman said.

Ahead of the vote, Barroso urged the 736-member assembly to back his Commission choices and laid out some of his aims.

"The broad priorities are clear: making a successful exit from the crisis; leading on climate action and energy efficiency; boosting new sources of growth and social cohesion to renew our social market economy," he said.

The new Commission will be the second headed by Barroso, who received backing from EU leaders for another term last June and won support from the Parliament in September.

Barroso has made Europe's economic recovery – under the banner of a 10-year jobs and growth programme called the 2020 strategy – the broad focus of the next Commission's work, but individual commissioners will have busy personal portfolios.

Recently, Parliament insiders told EURACTIV that Barroso's portfolio attributions would lead to an unprecedented overlap of responsibilities, seen as a risk factor for the months and years to come (EURACTIV 21/01/10).

Researchers told EURACTIV recently that the new Commission was "more partisan" than the first Barroso team, but this was not seen as a negative development (EURACTIV 11/12/09).

Three musketeers to lead Europe out of the crisis

Three of the most high-profile dossiers will be the internal market job to be handled by France's Michel Barnier, the monetary affairs portfolio to be taken by Finland's Olli Rehn and the competition brief under Spain's Joaquin Almunia.

Barnier has said he plans to tighten regulations in the wake of the economic and financial crisis, a move that has raised concerns in London, Europe's leading financial centre, where banks and financial firms fear excessive restrictions could inhibit their operations and drive participants abroad.

Rehn will be at the forefront of the battle to prevent a full-blown crisis in Greece, where a soaring budget deficit and mounting debt pile have led to speculation in financial markets that the government could default on payments, a move that would have profound repercussions for the euro single currency.

Almunia, the outgoing economic and monetary affairs chief, will be in charge of monitoring mergers and acquisitions and any anti-competitive or cartel-like behaviour in the EU or affecting the EU and its citizens.

Hard work begins under new rules

The Parliament also approved a set of key principles to govern the cooperation between the EU assembly and the Commission.

Parliament and the Commission are currently revising the Framework Agreement that defines relations between the two institutions, including their political responsibilities, the flow of information and legislative coordination.

In the future, for example, Parliament President Jerzy Buzek will be able to attend the weekly meetings of the Commission and President Barroso will attend the Conference of Political Group Presidents once a fortnight or so.

This would happen, analysts say, when topics of mutual interest are concerned, notably legislative and budgetary matters. "This is potentially seismic and it is rumoured that senior people within the Commission are saying that things will never be the same again and that this deal represents a real power gain for the Parliament," sources told EURACTIV.

The fact that the Parliament and the Commission compare notes behind closed doors at the very start of the legislative process, observers argue, could potentially create a trend towards "cooking things in advance and silencing debate in the name of speed, efficiency and common visions".

Recently, critics stressed, more and more EU legislation has been adopted in a single reading (rather than two or three). This state of affairs was criticised by Buzek himself when he was running for election as president and wanted to push back this trend.

Commenting on the cooperation agreement, Buzek noted that "the Framework Agreement set outs the new rules on how the European Parliament and Commission will work together on a daily basis. This new Framework Agreement boosts the Community Method. Agreed for five years, it is a foundation for solid co-operation between two important Community institutions".

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

French MEP Joseph Daul, leader of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, stressed that the EU must project "what the EU is - a world leader on the measures of GDP, market size and contributions to international aid".

Yet from Haiti to Iran, Afghanistan to Yemen, Cuba to transatlantic relations, the EU's voice so far has "failed to match our aspirations," Daul said, urging an "ambitious programme" to remedy this. The Commission's political orientation must reflect the outcome of the 2009 elections, he concluded.

Martin Schulz, leader of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, complained that the commissioners-designate had taken a "vow of silence" during the hearings, imposed by President Barroso, in order not to say anything wrong.

Those who entered into a real dialogue with the Parliament, such as Michel Barnier, Joaquin Almunia and Kristalina Georgieva, had "gained standing," Schulz said, concluding that the Commission needs to work as a college and must not be run like a "presidential system".

Liberal ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt said his group would be "responsible" and vote in favour, although "our support will be conditional".

He expects the new Commission to "become a driving force for Europe, which has not been the case for the last five years" and wants the commissioners to work as a real college, with a strong sense of unity and the ability to find cross-party support for its policies from all three of the political families that make up the new executive.

Finally, the new Commission needs to "focus on one main task: to find an answer to the economic crisis and a workable strategy to Europe 2020. Don't listen too much to member states," Verhofstadt concluded.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chair of the Greens/EFA group, believed he was in the presence of "a coalition of hypocrites" as many MEPs had voted for a Commission they did not really support. Most of the commissioners-designate had not displayed enough "vision and ambition" in their hearings but MEPs would still back them, thus implying that "all the minuses produce a plus". 

Cohn-Bendit said his group would not vote in favour of the Commission but added: "Don't say those who don't vote for you are against Europe."

He promised to afford the Commission his group's support on various issues if it were to take the right action, for example on climate change or the regulation of financial markets.

On behalf of his group, Czech MEP Jan Zahradil (European Conservatives and Reformists; ECR) told Barroso: "In 2005, you came up with the idea of cutting red tape by simplifying legislation. Why not revive this idea now?".

Zahradil added: "If you demonstrate that you're a reformer, we shall back you, but if you follow well-trodden paths, we shall stand up and resist you."

Lothar Bisky (GUE/NGL, DE) criticised the neoliberal stance of the Commission president and his new college of commissioners. "You will not get the approval of my group and you can expect harsh, but fair, exchanges of views with your college."

On behalf of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, Nigel Farage (UK) told Mr Barroso "what we have before us here is the new government of Europe, a government that with the Lisbon Treaty now has enormous powers," including "the ability now to use emergency powers to literally take countries over, and yet what we have heard from the European Parliament's big group leaders this morning is the demand that you take even more powers!" 

Farage argued that "poor Greece" is "trapped inside the economic prison of the euro" and warned that "the same is going to happen to Spain, to Portugal and to Ireland".

The European Commission has far-reaching powers to initiate legislation and to provide oversight of existing laws on issues ranging from mergers and acquisitions to trade, financial market regulation, economic and monetary affairs and the environment.

It consists of one commissioner from each EU member state, each of whom holds a portfolio and is expected to act in the interests of the EU and its 500 million citizens, without following any national agenda.

The Commission was scheduled to take office in November but approval was held up by delays in signing the EU's Lisbon reform treaty, amid disputes over who would fill two top-level EU jobs and due to Parliament's opposition to Bulgaria's original candidate.

Before the vote, MEPs discussed with Barroso his new team and its division of responsibilities, as well as a new Framework Agreement: the legal basis governing relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission (EURACTIV 29/01/10).

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