Brussels, 22 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Instead of receiving a resounding mandate from the European Parliament next on 27 October, the new European Commission, led by President Jose Manuel Barroso, may barely squeak into office.
Despite efforts by Barroso to placate his critics, it looks likely that he will secure only a narrow margin of victory -- and only if he convinces some of his liberal and socialist opponents to abstain.
With the future of the Barroso Commission still hanging in the balance, one important development is emerging. Issues such as fundamental rights, personal liberties, discrimination, and tolerance are likely to receive unprecedented attention in the new European Commission.
"I'm pleased to tell you that Mr. Buttiglione has written me a letter expressing his deep regret at the problems resulting from his appearance in front of the [European Parliament's] civil liberties committee."
At the very least, this will be the price for securing parliamentary approval for a list of commissioners that features Rocco Buttiglione among them.
Barroso says he has gotten the message on the importance of tolerance and respect for minorities in Europe.
"I have heard the parliament's message. That is why I've decided to raise the political profile of these issues in my Commission team by taking personal charge of coordinating our actions in this area. As I told the conference of presidents [of the political groups in the European Parliament] this morning, I've decided to set up and chair a new group of commissioners to look into questions of fundamental rights, nondiscrimination, and oversee Commission policy in this area," Barroso said.
Barroso says the group will be made up of five commissioners with an interest in the area. Apart from Barroso himself, it will include Buttiglione; former Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who will have the employment portfolio; and the commission's public relations chief, Margot Wallstroem.
The remaining two members of the group are the external relations and humanitarian aid commissioners -- Benita Ferrero Waldner, an Austrian, and Louis Michel, a Belgian.
This, Barroso says, will take related decision-making out of Buttiglione's hands.
Barroso also is praising a letter released by Buttiglione, in which the Italian commissioner-designate says he regrets the controversy.
"I'm pleased to tell you that Mr. Buttiglione has written me a letter expressing his deep regret at the problems resulting from his appearance in front of the [European Parliament's] civil liberties committee, [which narrowly voted against his candidacy]. He assures me it was never his intention to offend or upset anybody, least of all women or the gay community. He also confirms his complete opposition to any kind of discrimination on any grounds," Barroso said.
Buttiglione also says in the letter that "words so emotionally charged as 'sin' should perhaps not be introduced in the political debate." He says he expects conflicts to arise between his conscience and his duties as a commissioner -- promising, however, to pass on to others decisions where this may be the case.
Opponents of Buttiglione and Barroso dismiss the letter, saying it simply serves political expediency.
Barroso yesterday won the support of the leader of the conservative European People's Party, the largest in the assembly. Hans-Gert Poettering said the concessions made by Barroso are sufficient.
Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist faction, on the other hand, said Barroso had reneged on promises made earlier. He said nothing short of stripping Buttiglione of his portfolio will satisfy his group.
The liberals are also skeptical, and a number of smaller left-wing and green groups say they will vote against Barroso's European Commission.
The European Parliament can only vote down the full commission, not individual commissioners.
Barroso's opponents currently outnumber his supporters in the parliament. However, voting rules specify that only "yes" and "no" votes will count next week, and only a simple majority is needed.
Thus, Barroso will not need to do much more than persuade a relatively small number of Socialists and liberals to abstain.
"I have asked the [European] Parliament to take a balanced view on the [composition] of my commission. And I am very confident that we'll get the support of a clear majority of the members of the European Parliament," Barroso said.
Barroso received an important endorsement from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 20 October. A Social Democrat, Schroeder nevertheless said Barroso must be approved by as wide a margin as possible. Germany has traditionally supported a strong EU executive.
Barroso yesterday also argued that the issue should not be viewed as an ideological confrontation. Rather, he warned of an institutional crisis in the EU if the nomination of his commission is delayed or if it receives a lukewarm mandate.
Barroso's supporters in the European Parliament acknowledge that his hands are tied, as commissioner-designates are nominated by national governments. Thus, he cannot refuse Buttiglione even if he wanted to. Reapportioning portfolios is also considered too risky, as other commissioner-designates could fall prey to resulting political recriminations.