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Europe: New European Commission President Promises Independent Leadership

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> The European Parliament on 22 July confirmed the appointment of ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso as the next president of the European Commission. Shrugging off pressure from larger member states, Durao Barroso says he alone will decide which commissioners will get which responsibilities when the new European Commission takes office on 1 November. The European Commission has a guiding role in the EU economy, but Durao Barroso has indicated he wants member states to give him a greater say in foreign policy and the fight against terrorism.

Brussels, 23 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It took European Union leaders two summits last month to settle on Jose Manuel Durao Barroso as the next head of the European Commission.

The 22 July confirmatory vote in the European Parliament was never in question, however. Durao Barroso's fellow right-wingers in the parliament's largest faction, the European People's Party, had long declared their support. The liberals, too, went along, as did many of the socialists. In the end, Durao Barroso got the votes of 413 deputies of the 711 present.

Durao Barroso hailed the vote as a strong mandate:

"I'm delighted, honored and proud that the European Parliament has confirmed my appointment. The level of support -- very strong support, indeed -- from members of the European Parliament, from various political families, is a good signal for the future and for our cooperation," Durao Barroso said.
"When it comes to human rights, let me tell you that I will be criticizing human rights abuses, be it in Russia, be it in United States' prisons -- as happened in Iraq, I've said it publicly -- [or] be it in Third World countries."

Some socialists -- in particular, those from France -- were said to have voted against him, in what was a closed ballot. Durao Barroso has been criticized for arranging a summit in the Azores last year before the Iraq war for top members of the U.S.-led coalition.

Despite his optimistic tone, Durao Barroso realizes the European Parliament faces a growing legitimacy crisis. In elections last month, fewer than 45 percent of European voters turned out to cast ballots.

Durao Barroso acknowledged this in a speech to the parliament on 21 July. He said the main challenge for Europe is not the "Euro-skepticism of the few, but the Euro-apathy of the many."

One of Durao Barroso's immediate tasks will be leading the campaign to ratify the new EU constitution. Many countries will hold a referendum, and failure in any one of them could wreck the whole effort. Officials say Durao Barroso is contemplating creating a new "public relations" portfolio in his European Commission.

Durao Barroso has already made clear he will not bow to pressure from Germany and other big member states. He indicated this week that he will not be creating the position of a "super commissioner" responsible for the economy, as requested by Berlin. Similarly, there will be no powerful circle of vice presidents. Big member states are now expected to try and jostle for the more influential portfolios.

Durao Barroso said on 22 July that no one can dictate the makeup of the European Commission. "I alone will decide and announce the division of portfolios. The independence of my commission is crucial for its credibility," he said.

EU officials say member states have until 20 August to nominate their commissioners. Durao Barroso has said he will hand out portfolios according to merit, not nationality.

Durao Barroso has said he wants one-third of the commissioners to be women.

The new president will finalize his working program early next year. Durao Barroso said this week that his commission will put a greater emphasis on freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. Durao Barroso says these are the leading EU values, followed by equality of opportunity, and solidarity, and social justice.

This could lead to a tougher stance with regard to the EU's neighbors. Durao Barroso notes that member states retain the final say in foreign policy, but is demanding more "common vision." If the EU constitution is ratified, the bloc will get its first foreign minister, who will partly answer to Durao Barroso.

Prompted by a Russian journalist, Durao Barroso indicated a tougher EU human rights stance could be in the offing. "When it comes to human rights, let me tell you that I will be criticizing human rights abuses, be it in Russia, be it in United States' prisons -- as happened in Iraq, I've said it publicly -- [or] be it in Third World countries. Human rights for us [are] sacred, and all countries should respect [them]. I will have no negotiations about those issues," Durao Barroso said.

Whether by design or by accident, Durao Barroso put Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia together as the next likely entrants, although the latter is still to begin talks.

Saying Turkey is also a candidate he then added other hopefuls must make do with the European Neighborhood Policy. He did qualify this by adding that the EU will not be closing doors on anyone in the long run.