Barroso’s ‘pro-EU majority’ stumbles on Socialists

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The European Parliament has come a step closer to backing José Manuel Barroso’s bid for a second consecutive term at the European Commission’s helm, it emerged yesterday (10 September). But Socialist and Green opposition to his re-appointment means there will be no “pro-European majority” behind him.

Leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups agreed today (10 September) to stage a vote on Barroso’s re-appointment on 16 September, paving the way for the Portuguese to be re-elected for a second five-year mandate at the European Commission’s helm. 

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal group (ALDE), helped tilt the balance in favour of Barroso when he threw his weight behind the former Portuguese prime minister. 

But the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group, Martin Schulz, indicated that Barroso would not obtain a qualified majority of votes and thus he would not have the legitimacy required by the Lisbon Treaty. 

The vote of approval, due to take place by secret ballot, was scheduled for a plenary session on 16 September and Mr Barroso appears to have a sufficient majority to win it. 

Those supporting the vote were the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Liberals (ALDE) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), an anti-federalist group consisting of the British Tories, the Law and Justice party (PiS) of the Kazcynski twins in Poland, and the Czech Civic Democratic Party founded by the country’s Eurosceptic president Václav Klaus. 

But the Commission president’s authority will be undermined as the Socialists and Greens opposed staging the vote of approval, saying there was no “pro-European majority” behind him. 

According to Parliament rules, each political leader’s vote “weighs” as much as the number of MEPs in his group. Therefore with 265 MEPs from the EPP, 84 from the ALDE and 54 from the ECR, Barroso can rely on a comfortable majority of 403 votes in his favour (a simple majority of 369 votes is sufficient to pass decisions). 

But the Socialist and Democrats group, with 184 MEPs, voted against holding the vote, insisting that the decision needed to be taken following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. They were backed by the Greens/EFA group, with 55 MEPs, and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), which has 35 MEPs. 

A proposal put forward by Guy Verhofstadt to hold a second vote on Barroso under Lisbon Treaty rules, if and when the text eventually enters into force, was rejected. The Socialists supported this ALDE proposal, but the Greens and other groups voted against it and GUE/NGL abstained. 

Calculating Barroso’s chances

But different rules will apply on 16 September, when MEPs will cast a secret ballot. Barroso is certain of being re-elected if he obtains a majority of votes from those present in plenary in Strasbourg on that day. 

The EPP is expected to vote massively in favour of Barroso and the Portuguese can also count on the support of the ECR group and most of ALDE. 

However, he would need a broader majority to be assured of victory. 

It remains unclear how much support the Portuguese candidate can obtain from the Socialist group. The seven Portuguese MEPs and most of the 21 Spanish legislators are expected to support him out of ‘peninsular’ solidarity. Some Socialist MEPs from Eastern European countries may also vote for Barroso. 

But several French and German Socialists said they will vote against him and many other centre-left legislators are expected to abstain. 

As a result, Barroso is likely to be elected ‘thanks’ to the anti-federalist and anti-Lisbon Treaty camp, as without those MEPs, he appears to be short of a majority. 

Schulz explains

Asked by EURACTIV whether he was able to control his MEPs, or at least instruct them how to vote, Socialist and Democrats group leader Martin Schulz said: “For certain, I cannot, I am unable to give instructions, and it is not my habit. I try to convince my group with arguments. It is true that our group is a specific case. I wouldn’t hide that the Socialist group has different tendencies.” 

“There is a governmental branch in our group which supports their comrade. Others are against [Barroso] and the third group, for the time being, hasn’t decided.” 

Schulz deplored that Socialist prime ministers had backed Barroso and added that under such circumstances, his objective was to re-group his MEPs around a “common line”. The objective, he said, was to exert enough pressure to shape the next Commission’s agenda and introduce more social aspects to its policies. He also said he was going to pursue his task of obtaining a more influential position for the European left in the EU’s institutions (see EURACTIV 10/09/09 and EURACTIV 09/09/09). 

Asked by EURACTIV if Barroso would be voted in by a European majority, Schulz answered: “With our vote, he would. Without us, he can have a majority only with the anti-Europeans.” 

Asked again how this could in fact be the case as the centre-left appears divided, he mused: “How would you know that in advance?” 

Piotr Maciej Kaszynski, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, told EURACTIV that the answer to the question of whether the idea of a pro-European majority had failed would come after the 16 September vote. But he warned of a growing politicisation between the EU institutions. 

"It would be premature to call the idea dead after today's Conference of the Presidents," Kaczynski said, adding that this was "a signal of much greater politicisation in this European Parliament in relation with the new European Commission". 

"In the past we didn't have such a situation, that we would have opposition to the Commission as such. In the past, we have had [..] critical voices on issues, but not necessarily all coming from the same camp," the analyst recalled, adding that there hadn't been a stable majority backing the Commission either. 

Annemie Neyts, president of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party  (ELDR), said that Barroso's political programme for the presidency of the European commission was "a bit wooly". However, in a communiqué, she admitted that Barroso's presentation of his priorities for the next five years at yesterday's ALDE group meeting "was excellent, very straight to the point". 

Explaining why the proposed new Commission portfolio for civil rights and fundamental freedoms is so important, Neyts commented “we can’t have security without safeguarding freedoms and all our parties strongly supported this position”. 

"Barroso gave guarantees to the group about developing the idea of creating an EU financial supervisor and looking at the way the EU budget is funded. We are firm in what we want to see Barroso commit himself to during a future Commission presidency, but we never said that we are against him," Neyts concluded. 

Following the Conference of Presidents' decision, Greens/EFA group co-presidents Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit commented: 

"We regret that a liberal-conservative majority has followed the will of EU governments and Barroso himself to steamroll the nomination process for the President of the next EU Commission. The Greens' position remains that the vote on the next Commission president should take place after the Irish referendum on Lisbon. Only then we will know under which Treaty the new Commission will be nominated." 

The Greens deplored the "volte-face" of Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt, who they said had "transformed in a few short months from fierce critic to willing accomplice in Barroso's appointment". The Greens explained they opposed Verhofstadt's PR stunt calling for a repeat of the Barroso vote (in the event that Lisbon is ratified) because there is a legal obligation to have the Commission president and other Commissioners nominated under the same treaty. 

A press release of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament quotes its president Martin Schulz as warning that on 16 September in Strasbourg, Barroso will not obtain a qualified majority of votes and thus would not have the legitimacy required by the Lisbon Treaty. 

The decision of the Socialist MEPs will be taken according to political commitments, and not just personalities, the statement concludes. 

The European Parliament's liberal (ALDE) group took a strong political stance after the June EU elections in trying to isolate the new anti-federalist group spearheaded by the British Conservatives, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). 

Guy Verhofstadt, the new leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), pleaded for a "pro-European majority" for electing the next European Commission president, announcing that he would strive to build a "pro-European coalition" in Parliament (EURACTIV 02/07/09). 

Verhofstadt's vision for a pro-European majority included the three major groups – the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D) and the Liberals (ALDE). 

The main thrust of this political project was to isolate the EU assembly's newest group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), spearheaded by the British Conservatives. 

During the previous parliament and under different political circumstances, former ALDE leader Graham Watson had called for an "ideological coalition" between ALDE and the EPP in the hope of obtaining the Parliament's co-presidency. 

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