Barroso well placed for second term as EC chief
Brussels -- Boosted by fresh backing from Britain and Germany, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso is likely to return as head of the EU's executive body, despite French reservations.
Barroso’s mandate at the commission — a sort of super EU butler drafting laws and projects from food safety to foreign aid for a 27-headed master — ends in October and he has not ruled out seeking a second five-year term.
But the calendar for naming candidates to the post, likely to be discussed by European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, hinges in large part on a solution being found to the bloc’s institutional woes.
The EU has been in political limbo since French and Dutch voters rejected its first-ever constitution in 2005. Then last year, the blueprint’s successor, the Lisbon Treaty, was rejected by voters in Ireland.
Ireland is due to hold a second referendum later this year. If its voters back Lisbon this time it see the arrival of a new full-time EU president, tasked with representing EU countries in Brussels alongside the commission.
If they again reject the treaty, designed to streamline decision-making in an expanding EU, further turmoil beckons.
The question of who should lead the commission — guardian of the EU’s treaties and top competition regulator — also comes at a crucial time due to the global economic crisis, which will top the summit agenda.
As the crisis has evolved, Barroso, who turns 53 on March 23, and his commission have been criticized for failing to react quickly enough to events, yet this hasn’t deprived him of support in London and Berlin.
"We will support him not only as the current president of the European Commission but for election as the next president of the European Commission," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday.
In Germany, the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party said that if the political bloc that it and Barroso belongs to wins European elections in June, he should continue his "successful work" at the head of the EU executive.
Indeed for many members of the European Parliament, only a defeat for the conservative European People’s Party bloc — the biggest in parliament and under little threat in the polls — would derail his plans.
"Unless somebody else steps forward — at the present time it doesn’t look very likely," said British MEP and constitutional expert Andrew Duff, "he’s going to be president of the new commission."
Even Duff’s German Socialist colleague Jo Leinen, often a critic of Barroso, concedes that the former Portuguese premier has "wide support" among EU leaders, who must appoint him unanimously.
On the down side, support for Barroso has wobbled in Paris.
Last July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy openly backed him, but said on March 1 that it would be better to wait until after the Irish vote to name him "if we want to be smart and we don’t want to have everyone on our back."
A French diplomat said however that those remarks should be seen as a "warning", as they came after the commission demanded guarantees about Sarkozy’s plans to bailout the national auto industry.
Despite this, much debate is focused on when Barroso should be named.
A number of governments and lawmakers want him to be nominated in June, to avoid weakening the commission as the economic crisis bites, Duff said.
Others point out that in June, no one will know whether the Lisbon Treaty will come into force from 2010, or whether the current Nice Treaty, a stop-gap document the bloc is limping along on, will remain.