Support growing for Verhofstadt to replace Barroso

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Liberals, Greens and Socialists have started joining forces to prevent José Manuel Barroso from being re-appointed as next president of the European Commission, instead proposing Belgium’s former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

The Socialist group in the European Parliament will oppose the re-election of Barroso, its leader said yesterday (9 June), after the current Commission president had confirmed that he was running for re-election. 

“Mr Barroso stands for a policy which we opposed in the [EU] elections. I cannot recommend at the moment that my faction supports Mr Barroso for a second term,” Martin Schulz was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s edition of the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper. 

Sources told EURACTIV that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chair of the Greens group, had proposed joint action for electing Verhofstadt at the Commission’s helm to Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists, and that Rasmussen had accepted. Moreover, Rasmussen is currently touring European capitals to secure support for the election of Verhofstadt, the sources said. 

This development looks like bad news for the European People’s Party (EPP), whose leader Joseph Daul has called on Monday (8 June) for a grand coalition between the EPP, the liberal ALDE group and the Party of European Socialists (PES) to reappoint Barroso (EURACTIV 09/06/09). 

As the vote in the European Parliament is secret, the EPP needs help from outside its ranks to get Barroso reelected. The centre-right won the elections with 264 seats out of 736, well ahead of the Socialist group, which obtained 162. But it is nevertheless finding it difficult to secure a majority coalition. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not make any secret of the fact that re-electing Barroso would be a difficult task. 

“We will need to hold complicated talks with the European Parliament,” she was quoted as saying at a joint conference with Barroso in Berlin yesterday. Barroso is touring European capitals to secure support for his re-election. 

‘Remakes are the worst movies’

Verhofstadt himself will not react at this stage, his spokesperson Kurt Debuef told EURACTIV. “He has always said that the worst movies are remakes,” Debuef added, alluding to the fact that Verhofstadt had already been a candidate for the Commission presidency in 2004, but was vetoed by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

European Parliament sources told EURACTIV that Verhofstadt was cautious because his own camp was not united behind him, the main problem being that ALDE leader Graham Watson was nourishing “personal ambitions” to become European Parliament president. As the relatively small liberal group cannot be given the two top jobs, Watson saw Verhofstadt as a challenging competitor. 

Also, Watson reportedly scheduled the next ALDE group meeting at the end of July to purposely avoid helping Verhofstadt, sources said. Inside the European Parliament, Belgian ALDE MEP Annemie Neyts-Uytterbroeck is taking the lead in lobbying for Verhofstadt instead of Watson within the ALDE group, the sources added. 

The Greens were the first to launch an anti- Barroso campaign (EURACTIV 30/03/09). After the EU elections, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, their co-chairman and head of the 'Europe Ecologie' list in France, called on the French government to veto Barroso's re-appointment as head of the Commission, as in his view a majority of French citizens had voted for parties who do not want to see him there for a second term. 

Simultaneously, François Bayrou, leader of the French liberal party MoDem, called for an alliance to be built with the Greens and the Socialists. During his campaign, Bayrou had called for Guy Verhofstadt to replace Barroso at the Commission's helm. 

Together, the Liberals, the Greens and the Socialists have 294 MEPs, which is short of a majority in the 736-seat assembly. However, the Confederal Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left with 32 MEPs, the Independence/Democracy group with 18 MEPs and many of the 93 MEPs not yet affiliated to European party groups are also expected to vote against Barroso. The fact that the ballot is secret, however, makes predictions more difficult. 

Guy Verhofstadt was three times prime minister of Belgium and opposed the war in Iraq, while Barroso, as prime minister of Portugal, hosted a crucial pro-war meeting in the Azores on 16 March 2003, four days before the war started, attended by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain's Jose Maria Aznar.

Verhofstadt recently attacked EU leaders for failing to agree on a common recovery plan to tackle the global crisis, and called on fellow liberals to seek to "move Europe forward" (EURACTIV 16/04/09). 

He also presented a manifesto-like book on how to rescue Europe from its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, in which he slammed the European Commission's lack of a clear strategy to fight the financial and economic crisis (EURACTIV 13/05/09). 

Verhofstadt was the head of his party's OpenVLD list at the EU elections and was elected as an MEP. 

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