French PM eyes Barroso’s job?

September 7, 2009

fillonIs France trying to stymie Jose Manuel Barroso’s re-election for a second term as European Commission president?

An intriguing story in Le Monde reports that French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (pictured left with Barroso and President Nicolas Sarkozy) is considering offering his services as head of the European Union executive if Barroso fails to win majority support from the European Parliament this month. Le Monde quotes an unidentified French minister and an anonymous senior diplomat, with a comment from Fillon’s office declining to speculate on a Barroso failure and saying that of course, the prime minister is interested in Europe but he hasn’t put himself forward as a candidate.

What are we to make of this murky tale, published on the very day when Barroso, a conservative former Portuguese prime minister officially backed by France, began wooing EU lawmakers to give him a confirmation vote next week?

Well, Sarkozy has tried to keep Barroso off balance ever since France’s hyperactive EU presidency last year. His aides have whispered poison against the Commission president, suggesting he was slow to react to the financial crisis and had to be constantly prodded into action by Paris. The French leader suggested in March there was no hurry to reappoint Barroso and it could wait until after next month’s Irish referendum on the EU’s reform treaty. He backed down in June and went along with the unanimous decision of EU leaders to nominate the incumbent for a second term.

There are at least three possible explanations for the latest twist:

 – it may just be another attempt to distance the French from Barroso, who has been widely cast by the French media, centrists, greens and the left as an “ultraliberal” bogeyman, whose support for light-touch regulation contributed to the crisis;

 – it could be a another warning shot from the Elysee Palace designed to keep Barroso on the defensive and pliant, ensuring that France gets a top job (the internal market or perhaps foreign policy chief)for its candidate for EU commissioner in the post-referendum horse-trading;

 – or, less likely, it could be a serious attempt to reopen the Commission presidency after the Irish referendum, giving waverers in the European Parliament a reason to postpone a vote on Barroso this month.

In any case, it is hard to imagine Fillon winning broad support for the top Brussels job. For one thing, he campaigned and voted against the Maastricht Treaty on European Union in 1992, which established the euro single currency and a common foreign policy. That would alienate European federalists, who are among Barroso’s strongest critics. Many of the new member states in central and eastern Europe regard France as statist, protectionist and still hostile to EU enlargement. They would be unlikely to back a French candidate. A fluent English-speaker, Fillon has a British wife and is fiscally orthodox enough to pass muster with Germans obsessed with budget discipline.  I suspect Sarkozy would rather have a weak Barroso at the Commission, despite his avowed wish for strong European leadership in the crisis.

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