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Barroso: the EU chameleon

Brussels — Jose Manuel Barroso, who is almost certain to get a second term as European Commission president this week, has become a master of adapting to circumstances and rubbing leaders the right way.

The 53-year-old former Portuguese premier has been called a "chameleon" who can move with the wind of Europe’s often-fickle political interests.

If EU leaders agree at a summit starting Thursday, Barroso will head the EU’s executive body over the next five years to propose legislation for the 27 member nations and enforce rules already in place.

The commission, whose budget next year totals 138 billion euros, also polices competition issues.

The multilingual father of three sons has a proven track record for shifting with the sands, with a colourful career that has ranged from Maoism to middle-of-the-road conservatism.

One of the youngest politicians to join a Portuguese government when appointed to a top interior ministry post at the age of 29, Barroso was also known as a zealous champion of the transatlantic alliance.

It was this versatility that enabled him in 2004 to win the support of European Union powerhouses like France and Germany as well as the new nations of eastern Europe, that joined in May that year, to get a first term.

One key consideration then was his perceived ability to heal divisions between supporters and opponents of the US-led war in Iraq.

At first he backed the US campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, hosting a divisive summit with the United States, Britain and Spain on the eve of the invasion.

Yet, at the same time, he managed to weave a web of contacts with other EU governments, particularly among the new member nations, at a difficult time for the bloc.

The last five years has been marred by the EU’s failure to agree a constitution and its struggle to ratify a alternative reforms in the Lisbon Treaty, exposing a rift between Europeans and their political elite.

When the financial and economic crisis hit, Barroso was accused by France and Germany of being too passive and slow to act. Critics said the commission chief was too concerned about being granted a new mandate.

"The commission is so scared of the member states right now and everyone is thinking so much about their re-nomination that their proposals are just not up to scratch," ex-French European affairs minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said.

Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer was even less charitable. "Barroso is so weak that he will be rewarded with another mandate," he said.

Nevertheless his negotiating skills remain impressive.

In the past, Barroso has helped engineer the Angolan peace accord and sustained the independence movement in East Timor. He was also dogged in keeping Portugal within the economic rules of the European single currency.

Even his wife, Margarida Sousa Uva, a former literature student, is impressed by his versatility.

Asked to describe her husband, Sousa Uva once famously remarked: "If he were a fish, he’d be a grouper," in an apparent reference to the species’ chameleon-like ability to change colour based on its surroundings.