Home News Barroso, the ‘chameleon’ holds on to top EU post

Barroso, the ‘chameleon’ holds on to top EU post

Published on 17/09/2009

Strasbourg -- Jose Manuel Barroso, who won a second term as head of the European Commission on Wednesday, is a master of adapting to circumstances whatever the battle he faces.

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.

From November, Barroso will again head the efforts of the European Union’s unelected executive body to propose legislation for the 27 member nations and enforce rules already in place.

This multilingual father of three sons has a proven track record for shifting with the sands. His colourful career 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 the 25 countries then in the European Union, from the big powerhouses like France and Germany to the nations of eastern Europe which joined that year.

One of the key considerations in nominating him five years ago was his perceived ability to heal divisions between supporters and opponents of the US-led war in Iraq.

He was endorsed then even after 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 nations, at a difficult time for the bloc.

The last five years have been marred by the EU’s failure to agree a constitution and its struggle to ratify a successor text of reforms, the Lisbon Treaty, exposing a rift between citizens 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, with critics saying he was too concerned about winning 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, and he worked hard over recent weeks to mollify the most hostile parties.

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 rules of the European single currency.

Even his wife, former literature student Margarida Sousa Uva, 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 specie’s chameleon-like ability to change colour based on its surroundings.