Gifts for all on Barroso’s Christmas tree

September 15, 2009

danybozo-epJose Manuel Barroso’s pitch to the European Parliament for a confirmation vote on Wednesday was like a Christmas tree, with gifts for everyone.

Bidding for a second term with a wider majority than his own centre-right political family, Barroso produced last-minute peace offerings for the centrist liberals, the centre-left socialists, the environmentalist greens, women, trade unionists, the French and the scientific community.

To the left, he promised early regulation to clarify the status of workers posted from low-wage countries to higher-paying regions following a series of EU court rulings that infuriated trade unions. He also promised a “quality framework for services of general interest” (whatever that means). And he pledged to draft a “women’s charter” to close the gender pay gap. 

But he fell short of the Socialists’ demands for a legal guarantee of “equal pay for equal work in the same place, regardless of gender”, and for a directive shielding public services from the rigours of EU competition and state aid policy.

For the liberals, he vowed to create a European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and civil liberties, a separate portfolio for the one in charge of home affairs, security and migration.

For environmentalists, he promised to establish a commissioner for climate action to send a signal of the EU’s ambition to lead the world in fighting global warming. But did not make clear whether that job, currently part of the wider environment portfolio, would also be in charge of the EU’s energy and transport policies.

For the scientific community, he promised to appoint a chief scientific adviser to give pro-active policy advice and promote research and innovation, areas in which the EU is lagging behind the United States.

He also vowed to lead a fight against “naked nationalism, ugly nationalism” in Europe, including in the economic domain. For the French, there were stirring words about the spirit of “volontarisme” — an untranslatable term which roughly means applying political willpower to overcome problems. However, he did not say whether he would take regulation of state aid to industry out of the hands of the Commission’s rigorous competition department and lump it into a big portfolio for industrial policy, as diplomats say France wants in hopes of greater leniency from Brussels.

Appealing to the desire of many European lawmakers to increase the power of their institution, Barroso called for a special partnership between the European Commission and the European Parliament as the two pan-European institutions par excellence.

Greens floor leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit (above right) reminded the conservative former Portuguese prime minister that he had spent his first five-year term toadying to national leaders rather than advancing European federalism. But Barroso had an answer ready: he saw no need to apologise for having the unanimous support of 27 heads of state and government from across the political spectrum, “but pay attention: a re-elected president will have more authority”.

The latest word in the corridors of Strasbourg is that Barroso may win by an absolute majority of parliament members, rather than the simple majority he needs on Wednesday, thanks to support from most liberals and eurosceptical conservative nationalists, and defections by the Portuguese, Spanish and Polish socialists. Some other socialists and liberals may abstain rather than vote against him.

That would be a political triumph for the multilingual chameleon after weeks of uncertainty over his prospects. Whether he will use it to stand up more to the big member states in his second term is another question. He will be tested soon in his allocation of Commission portfolios.

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