Barroso warns opponents not to weaken Europe

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Concluding a marathon procedure to win MEPs’ support ahead of today’s parliamentary vote on his re-election, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told his opponents in the European Parliament that they were making a mistake by trying to weaken him against the will of member states.

Barroso, who easily obtained the support of the 27 heads of state and government in June (see EURACTIV 19/06/09), has faced in recent weeks an uphill battle in the European Parliament, where a heated debate in plenary augured for his probable re-election by what could be a narrow margin, as today’s (16 September) vote is a secret ballot.

Candidate Barroso had to answer such questions as ‘Do you sleep well with problems such as Europe’s unemployment?’ He also had to defend his record at the helm of the EU executive thus far, which some of his critics, mainly from the ranks of the left and the Greens, saw as dismal. 

Throughout the debate with MEPs in the last few days, Barroso has been challenged on grounds as diverse as his Maoist past in the years after the 1974 Portuguese revolution, or for being a chameleon, trying to please political groups by including some of their priorities in his political agenda merely to win their votes, and for being the puppet of the leaders of major EU countries. 

Angry body language 

During the plenary session, Barroso’s body language appeared to convey the message that some MEPs had gone too far in their attacks. He told his critics that they were presenting a caricature of him, but he could not prevent them from attacking this false image they had constructed for themselves. 

“I believe this is damaging Europe. On one side, you say, we want a stronger Europe, we want a stronger Commission, we want you to stand against some member states who are going national. On the other side, you say, we are not going to vote for you, we are to reduce your influence, we are going to weaken you in front of the member states. There is a contradiction there. If you want a strong Commission, that has the rights and initiative to defend the European interest, at least give me the benefit of the doubt. At least!,” a bullish Barroso told his opponents. 

Barroso said he was himself wondering why he was the only candidate for the job, explaining that he sometimes understood his critics, as he assumed that they were comparing him with their ideal candidate. “But there was no ideal candidate, because such a candidate could not secure enough support [from EU leaders],” Barroso said. 

Excellent advocate for the Council 

The leader of the Socialist and Democrats group, Martin Schulz, said he wondered why a candidate as controversial in the European Parliament as Barroso had obtained such uniform backing from the Council. 

“I think the answer is clear. Had I been head of government, I would have gone for José Manuel Barroso. He is an excellent advocate for the interests of the Council. It would have been impossible to get a better one over the last five years. Your appeal for cooperation with the European Parliament is the right one, Mr. Barroso, but it is too late,” Schulz said. 

The S&D group is split over the Barroso vote. At a late press conference held after the plenary session, Schulz said a proposal from the German SPD delegation that S&D MEPs should abstain from today’s vote had been backed by 95 of his group’s MEPs and opposed by 43, amid five abstentions. 

Asked by EURACTIV why his group was in fact weakening Barroso and giving prominence to the anti-federalist and anti-Lisbon Conservative and Reformist group, Schulz said Barroso would still be given the chance to construct a pro-European majority when he puts in place his Commission and its programme. “This time, Barroso will not obtain a qualified majority [under the Lisbon Treaty terms],” Schulz predicted. “If he does, it will be thanks to the Conservative and Reformist group,” he added.  

José Manuel Barroso won unanimous backing from EU heads of state and government in June for a second five-year mandate at the head of the European Commission (EURACTIV 19/06/09). 

Their political support was formalised by written procedure on 9 July. Sweden, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, had insisted on having Barroso re-appointed as soon as possible, arguing that in a time of crisis, the Union needs a Commission president who is fully in power (see EURACTIVLinksDossier on the Swedish EU Presidency). 

However, the re-election of Barroso took a different course in the European Parliament. After consultations mediated by the Swedish EU Presidency had taken place, it emerged that the European Parliament would not hold a vote on Barroso's re-appointment at its July plenary (EURACTIV 02/07/09). 

MEPs from the Socialist and Liberal groups, backed by the Greens and leftists, said that any decision on major appointments should wait until after the September general election in Germany and the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland, to be held on 2 October. 

Consequently, just before the summer recess, the leaders of the European Parliament's political groups agreed to delay until 10 September their decision on when to stage a vote for the top job (EURACTIV 17/07/09). 

On 3 September, Barroso, having worked over the recess, published his programme for the next five years, a 41-page document, contrasting both in length and substance with the short letter which helped him win the blessing of the EU's heads of state and government in June. Over the next week, Barroso presented his programme to all political groups. 

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