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Europe: Newly Confident European Parliament Approves Barroso's European Commission

The European Parliament voted into office a new European Commission headed by former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso today. The vote had been delayed by three weeks after the parliament rejected a number of initial commissioner-designates. Among those forced to leave was Rocco Buttiglione of Italy, who had angered deputies by calling homosexuality a "sin" and criticizing women's emancipation. The maneuverings appear to have strengthened the standing of the European Parliament, while the new commission has made tolerance and the fight against discrimination a top priority.

Brussels, 18 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament brought an end today to the legal limbo that had left the European Union without a proper executive body for the past three weeks.

Barroso's European Commission had been scheduled to take office on 1 November, but controversy over a number of nominees forced him to postpone a vote of confidence.

Barroso said today he decided to look forward: "The European Parliament has just given its strong backing to the commission. Sixty-six percent of the [European Parliament] voters supported the commission -- it means two-thirds. It is a great result, and I am very happy and honored to have received such a strong backing."
"I believe the commission comes out of this process stronger. The European Union is also stronger and our European democracy has grown and become more mature."

Barroso's European Commission received 449 votes, with 149 against and some 80 abstentions. All three of the largest groups -- the conservatives, Socialists, and liberals -- largely supported Barroso.

Yesterday, in presenting his new lineup to the plenary in Strasbourg, Barroso had appeared a little resentful about the changes he had been forced to make. His comment then was that "overall, we have been able to keep the balance of the initial team." This was a veiled reference to the loss of the controversial -- but intellectually respected -- Buttiglione. Barroso was also forced to give up one female nominee, thus reducing the number of women among his 24 commissioners to seven.

Today, however, Barroso was gracious in victory. "I believe the commission comes out of this process stronger. The European Union is also stronger and our European democracy has grown and become more mature," Barroso said.

His new lineup contains the minimum numbers of changes his critics in the European Parliament had suggested he needed to make.

Buttiglione was replaced by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who passed his hearings earlier this week without a hitch. Latvia also replaced its nominee after Ingrida Udre came under fire in October as unqualified for her taxation portfolio and for having been tainted by allegations of corruption.

Hungary's Socialist candidate Laszlo Kovacs, who was also found to be ill-prepared for the job, managed to escape ejection, but had to surrender his initial energy portfolio. That now goes to the new Latvian nominee, Andris Piebalgs, a career diplomat. Kovacs gets the less prestigious taxation portfolio.

The EU had been stumbling through uncharted territory in the past three weeks. No one had seriously entertained the thought that the European Parliament could reject a commission, let alone over problems involving only a handful of commissioners.

The power struggle looks likely to significantly increase the powers of the parliament in the eyes of both the commission and member states. It now wants the right to initiate the removal of individual commissioners should they fail to live up to their jobs.

The parliament has so far had limited say in EU affairs, its authority confined to internal market issues and budget approval. It is now likely to want more say in other areas too, such as justice and immigration and possibly foreign affairs.

Barroso's initial setback in late October was engineered by the Social Democrats. Socialist leaders have said they want their ideas to be given greater consideration. Today, Barroso indicated social concerns will be high on his agenda.

"We should be and we are going to be the catalyst for boosting competitiveness and growth, creating more jobs, tackling global problems, trying to implement a modern European social model that combines economic dynamism with solidarity and social justice," Barroso said.

As a result of the Buttiglione controversy, tolerance and the fight against discrimination will also be top priorities. Barroso has promised to create a sub-unit within the European Commission to deal with these issues.

Growing tensions in member states such as the Netherlands involving Muslim communities are likely to provide the sub-unit with plenty of work.