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EU: Barroso Withdraws Commission Before Crucial Vote

The president-designate of the new European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has withdrawn his entire team from consideration, hours before a crucial confidence vote in the European Parliament. The vote was widely expected to be too close to call, owing to increasing irritation among deputies at Barroso's refusal to strike the controversial Italian nominee Rocco Buttiglione from his list. European Union officials admit that the unexpected development puts the bloc in uncharted territory, and that the incumbent commission, headed by Romano Prodi, cannot stand down on 31 October, as planned.

Strasbourg, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Today's developments do not yet amount to a political crisis for the entire European Union, provided a new executive is approved within a month or so.

Officials told RFE/RL that this is Barroso's plan. He will embark on a tour of EU capitals to explore opportunities for reshuffling portfolios among his team. He is expected to return to the European Parliament in late November.

Barroso announced his decision today, less than two hours before the European Parliament in Strasbourg was scheduled to vote. Officials say Barroso's talks overnight with leaders of the bigger factions in the European Parliament had made it clear that he faced a real chance of being voted down.

Barroso acknowledged this in a short statement to the European Parliament:

"I have come to the conclusion that if a vote is taken today, the outcome will not be positive for European institutions or for the European project," Barroso said.

The evolving debate in parliament over the last week had indicated it would not have been enough simply to dismiss Buttiglione. Buttiglione is the Italian commissioner-designate who has called homosexuality a "sin" and has questioned the need for full emancipation for women. Although Buttiglione appears to be the root cause of Barroso's difficulties, his Socialist and Liberal opponents made clear on yesterday that they think a number of other commissioners are also unqualified for their jobs.
The developments underline the growing power of the European Parliament.

Barroso acknowledged that he must go back to the drawing board.

"I need more time to look at this issue and to consult with the council and to consult further with you so that we can have strong support for the new commission," Barroso said. "It is better to get more time to get it right."

The president of the European Parliament, Josep Borrell, appeared unprepared for such a development.

Chairing the meeting, he noted that the EU Treaty instructs parliament to either approve or to reject a new commission before 1 November. Borrell observed that since Barroso had withdrawn his proposal, parliament could not vote and that the EU is now in what he called "virgin political territory."

The Dutch minister for European affairs, Atzo Nicolai, then spoke on behalf of EU member states as a representative of the bloc's current presidency.

"The consequence of the situation will be that the current [European] Commission, the Commissioner Prodi, will stay in office as long as necessary," Nicolai said.

Prodi had said earlier that he was ready for such an eventuality, although he noted that many of his top officials have already left.

Today's developments underline the growing power of the European Parliament. The parliament had approved Barroso's nomination in July relatively easily after heads of EU member states had to meet twice to select him. Parliament's approval of Barroso's team was not seriously in question until two weeks ago.

Buttiglione's views incensed the Socialists and Liberals in Parliament, but the overwhelming majority of officials and diplomats believed that neither political grouping would seriously try to unseat him. Both the Socialists and Liberals were thought to be keen to avoid revenge attacks on nominees sharing their views.

However, over the past weeks, the Socialist leader in parliament, Martin Schulz, chose to question the qualifications of a number of commissioners -- among them Hungarian Socialist Laszlo Kovacs and Liberals Nellie Kroes and Mariann Fischer Boel.

Largely under Schulz's leadership, the issue was transformed into one of the powers of the European Parliament, the only directly elected pan-union body. Barroso's opponents argue that member states -- which alone can nominate commissioners -- expect parliament to simply "rubber-stamp" their decisions.

Barroso appeared yesterday to realize that what happened represents an important victory for the European Parliament:

"These last days have demonstrated that the European Union is a strong political construction and that this [European] Parliament, elected by popular vote across all our member states, has, indeed, a vital role to play in the governance of Europe," Barroso said.

When Barroso returns next month, with a team that is expected to contain at least some new names, he will have to pay very close attention to the parliament's opinion. Although it cannot vote down individual commissioners, the parliament has shown it will not balk from rejecting the whole team.