EU Parliament puts Barroso bid on ice

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Signalling a nerve-wracking wait for European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups have agreed to delay until 10 September their decision on when to stage a vote on the Portuguese’s bid for a second term at the EU executive’s helm.

The agreement yesterday (16 July) came just a few hours after European People’s Party chairman Joseph Daul MEP had announced that the vote would be held in September, seemingly ending the stand-off after other political groups had earlier refused to stage the vote during the Parliament’s July plenary. 

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), backed by the Swedish Presidency and EU heads of state and government, had been pushing for an early decision on Barroso’s re-appointment, arguing that Europe needed clarity over its leadership during times of recession. 

But MEPs from the Socialist and Liberal groups, backed by the Greens and leftists, argued differently, saying 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. 

Hannes Swoboda, vice-president of the Social-Democrats (S&D), said more time was needed to assess Barroso’s programme and that more clarity was needed on the EU’s future legal structure. 

“We want clarity depending on the treaty that nominates the president and the new members of the Commission,” he said. 

“In the event of an Irish ‘yes’ to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament could nominate both the president and the new Commission members under a single treaty.” 

“Our position on when to vote does not pre-empt our decision on how we will vote,” he added. 

Barroso vote: Under Nice or Lisbon? 

After weeks of deliberation, MEPs are still divided on whether to elect the new Commission president under the Nice Treaty and then nominate the full college of commissioners under a different legal framework. 

Under the Nice Treaty, the president of the Commission is elected by simple majority, while an absolute majority would be needed under the Lisbon Treaty, increasing the chances of a ‘no’ vote for Barroso. However, uncertainties remain about the Lisbon Treaty, as ratification is still pending in Ireland, Poland and the Czech Republic. 

To complicate matters, the Nice Treaty foresees a lower number of commissioners than the total number of member states, affecting decisions on the distribution of portfolios between countries. 

If the Parliament decides to wait until the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the election of the Commission president could be considered part of a nomination package which would also include the high representative for foreign affairs and the permanent president of the European Council, both of which are new positions established by Lisbon. 

Parliamentary support for Barroso eroding

Meanwhile, support for Barroso appears to be slowly eroding within the Parliament’s various political groups. 

“There is no clear majority for Barroso,” said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Greens, saying the Liberals are divided on the issue. “If we were to hold a vote today, Barroso would be in the hands of the non-attached,” Cohn-Bendit said, noting that two-thirds of the Socialists oppose Barroso’s reappointment despite backing from centre-left governments in the UK, Spain and Portugal.

According to the Green group co-chair, a number of MEPs in the EPP are also opposing the re-appointment of Barroso, and as the vote will be held under secret ballot some parliamentarians might not abide to party or country lines.

Meanwhile, Barroso is expected to present its political programme for the next five years, after the summer break, with the Portuguse invited to speak to the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Greens respectively on 8 and 9 September. 

The EPP and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) groups have underlined that debate over the Commission presidency needs to be a political debate on specific policy proposals, and not on personalities. 

“Our decision will depend on his political programme and the responses he will be able to give,” said ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, adding that his group would wait to see Barroso’s five-year plan before inviting him to a debate. 

Verhofstadt sent a letter to Barroso this week, listing a series of key initiatives it wants the Portuguese to introduce in return for his group’s backing for a second five-year term at the EU executive’s helm (EURACTIV 15/07/09).

Background

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, current holder of the rotating EU presidency, is strongly insisting on re-appointing Barroso as soon as possible, arguing that in a time of crisis, the Union needs a Commission president who is fully in power (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on the Swedish EU Presidency).

However, 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). 

This was largely due to the position adopted by Guy Verhofstadt, the new leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). 

Timeline

  • 10 Sept.: European Parliament Conference of Presidents to take place. 
  • 15-17 Sept.: Strasbourg plenary session.

Further Reading

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