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EU: Leaders Find Compromise Candidate For Commission President

The Irish presidency is nearly over The Irish presidency of the European Union has found a compromise candidate for the key post of president of the union's executive commission. He is Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. Almost unknown outside his own country, Durao Barroso is being described as both intensely pro-European, and at the same time Atlanticist in terms of supporting good relations with the United States. If the choice of Barroso is confirmed by the Council of Ministers tomorrow, he will replace Romano Prodi, who is stepping down at the end of his five-year term in Brussels in October. But is the obscure Portuguese the right man to lead the union at a time when it faces what are probably the most serious challenges in its half-century of existence?

Prague, 28 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. Who?

Yes, that's right. Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. He's the prime minister of one of the European Union's smallest and poorest members, Portugal.

Virtually unknown outside the tight circle of Portuguese politics, he has been chosen by the Irish presidency of the EU as its candidate for the post of European Commission president.

Durao Barroso's name will be put to the union's ruling Council of Ministers tomorrow. And despite his obscurity, he looks likely to be accepted as the new president of the commission, the executive arm of the 25-nation EU.

Plainly put, the 48-year-old lawyer is the "lowest common denominator" who was acceptable to all the major EU powers. More prominent candidates fell out of the race because they were unacceptable to one or another ideological orientation.

Belgium's Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, supported by Germany and France, was rejected by Britain as too federalist and anti-American. Briton Chris Patten, present commissioner for external relations, was in turn rejected by the continental powers.

As Marco Incerti, senior commentator with the Center for European Policy Studies, says, Durao Barroso is a "question mark.”

"He's a fall-back candidate from that point of view. Basically after the main runners have dropped out of the race, we have to default on Durao Barroso as a compromise candidate," Incerti said.

Incerti says this is not necessarily a bad thing -- it all depends on the Portuguese's ability to do the job. But he says it is a gamble.

Has Durao Barroso got what it takes to lead the union through what looks to be its most tumultuous five years since its foundation half a century ago?

A political correspondent at Portugal's ALI news agency in Lisbon, Nuno Vinha, points out that Durao Barroso has had some solid international experience.

"Well, he has quite a bit of experience in that area, he has been a foreign minister for Portugal, he handled a lot of problems regarding East Timor, and a lot of problems regarding Africa," Vinha said.

The task at the union will be daunting. The EU has just expanded by 10 new mainly East European countries, but is far from having integrated them. The real work of stitching them into the fabric of Europe is only just beginning, and will be difficult.

At the same time, the union is struggling to adopt a new constitution which is designed to allow such a huge and diverse collection of countries to work together efficiently.

Getting all member states to ratify this constitution in the next few years will be supremely difficult, and may prove impossible. A rupture in the union is conceivable which could see the departure of Britain.

Durao Barroso will be a key figure in imposing order and direction on potential chaos. As Incerti sees it, "He will need to work quite hard to improve the reputation of the commission again. Basically, the previous commission has worked quite well, it has achieved a lot, but in particular it was not able to communicate its successes. Mr. [Romano] Prodi lacked leadership from this point of view, and now Mr. Barroso will need to be a good coordinator, a good leader, because he will be working with this enlarged college, with more nationalities represented."

Durao Barroso's qualifications are right, at least on paper. A multilingual lawyer of the political center-right, he is seen as a convinced European, but at the same time as a supporter of good relations with the United States.

He is neither a federalist nor a nationalist, but supports fair treatment of big and small, poor and rich EU members. He favors an European Commission which is interventionist and well-funded on behalf of the poorer states.

He is an economic disciplinarian, imposing austerity measures on his own country after it breached EU budget rules, despite the unpopularity of such measures. He also backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and is a strong supporter of NATO.

Portuguese journalist Vinha says Durao Barroso has been assessed as an effective performer by the Portuguese public.

"He's been fairly popular as prime minister -- not the most popular figure in the government, not the most popular figure in the political class, but he's given a fair-to-good performance," Vinha says.

As to whether Durao Barroso can handle the Brussels job, that remains to be seen.