No Charisma and No Ideas But He Could Still Be in Office

Article published on July 8, 2004
community published
Article published on July 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

José Manuel Durao Barroso, the new head of the Commission, represents a blank page for many people. What can we expect from the Portuguese man as he plays the game of Brussels politics?

Just before the end of his time as EU Council President, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, put an end to all the speculation. Portugal’s Prime Minister, José Manuel Durao Barroso is to become the new President of the European Commission. In the man from Southern Europe the heads of state have called upon someone whose reputation does not suggest that he will bring much charisma to the post of Commission President or give a new edge to attempts at providing convincing and integrated policies. Up until now, this conservative politician has been seen as something of a well-meaning ‘middle-Englander’ amongst the ranks of government leaders. This could be seen a year ago, for example, when, the day before the war began, he hastily invited the supporters of the war on Iraq - Blair, Bush and Aznar - to the Azores.

A trial of strength for the Conservatives

This is precisely why French President, Chirac, and German Chancellor, Schröder, are said to have tried to block the nomination of the Portuguese conservative. In the end, however, Europe’s powerful axis could not get away from Barroso. According to Bertie Ahern, “a large majority of government leaders” supported Barroso straightaway. And another important player on the Brussels scene was also in favour of the man from Portugal – Hans-Gert Pöttering, leader of the conservative EPP-group in the European Parliament. Pöttering is happy with the choice of “a committed European and representative of the community method”. After coming out on top in the European elections on 13 June, Europe’s conservatives soon made it clear that they expected their views on who should become the new Commission President to be heard.

Although it seems to be going well so far, the trial of strength for the conservatives is not over yet. The European Parliament still has to agree to the appointment of the Commission President. And nowhere does it say that the majority party has to give their approval. With 280 MPs the European People’s Party (EPP) does have the largest number of MPs in Brussels and Strasbourg, but Barroso needs 367 votes to be successfully appointed.

Where these votes are likely to come from is not yet clear, as the majority of the representatives of the European people are not too enthusiastic about their government leaders’ choice. “I can’t give you a single reason why I should choose him”, said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Greens group. And Social Democrat MP, Poul Rasmussen, warned that “it will be very difficult to convince the Social Democrats that the nominee is the right man for the job”. The Liberals are also sceptical. And so this question of staffing could cause the parliamentary parties, which are normally so desperate to reach a consensus, to come to blows.

And they would not be without good reason. Because Barroso’s planned route from the top of the Portuguese government to the (bureaucratic) heart of Brussels is not altogether convincing. At present, Barroso is known neither as a charismatic character, nor as a high-profile European. “Charisma will come with responsibility”, is one of Barroso’s favourite sayings. His recognition rating outside of Portugal is probably around zero and in Brussels the moderate conservative is seen as a blank page. What he has planned as Commission President is virtually unknown. As a Professor of Politics and Law he has the technical qualifications under his belt at least.

The Chameleon

Barroso will also not be carried to the ‘capital’ of Europe on a wave of national sympathy. Hard-line cutbacks in spending have given Barroso his lowest ever popularity rating. In his homeland the one-time Marxist is compared to a chameleon – in the past, he frequently changed his political leanings. It’s too early to tell which position the ‘new boy’ will take between Europe’s federalists and the integration sceptics. In any case, he would like to build bridges between the US critics and the staunch Atlantisists in the EU. As one of his soundbites goes, he wants to make Europe one again after the Iraq fiasco. But this does not appear to be the reason for his nomination. As he comes from Portugal, one of the smaller Member States, he did not represent a suitable candidate in the eyes of France and Germany. This made him imminently more attractive to all the other countries, something that says a lot about future Brussels politics.

A packed diary awaits the new leader in Brussels. The Lisbon Strategy, with which Europe hopes to make itself the biggest world economy by 2010, is lacking direction and needs new impetus. For the Portuguese Barroso the Strategy also represents a matter of honour. Then the Commission has to draw up budgets for 2006 and the following years – with a president so set on saving, clashes are expected in this area. Further accession negotiations have to be carried out. And the Iraq supporter and Europhile from a small Member State will also hope to fill in the rifts between the Atlantisists and Washington critics, and large and small Member States that were rent by the war on Iraq and the debate on the constitution. But perhaps it will turn out better than expected. After all, Barroso’s predecessor, Romano Prodi, came to office having already been much lauded and then proceeded to put his foot in it with almost everyone in Brussels. Let’s just hope that the new boy does things differently.