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A new Barroso?

José Manuel Barroso was yesterday given a second term as Commission president by the European Parliament, which voted 382 for, 210 against with 117 abstentions. This was an unexpectedly large majority – in fact the absolute majority which the Lisbon Treaty would have required.

Barroso rightly claimed “reinforced authority” after this decisive victory, but what does this mean and how will he use it? Some thoughts:

Appointment of Commissioners

Commissioners are appointed under the Lisbon Treaty by common accord between the Council and the President-elect: under the existing treaties, the Member States decide themselves. Either way, Barroso is likely to have considerable influence over the membership of the College, if he chooses to use it.

Distribution of portfolios

This decision on both the composition of portfolios and their distribution will be solely that of Barroso, but he will be under pressure from, at least the large Member States, and the issue will arise when he discusses with Member States their proposed Commissioners.

Agenda

Barroso has stated in detail his agenda, which seeks to satisfy everyone. The business lobby is unhappy about his promised “review” of employment law governing mobility, but what happens in practice will depend largely on the Member States. His relationship with Parliament is likely to be reasonably harmonious under President Jerzy Buzek, but may become fraught if the Socialist Group leader Martin Schulz takes over mid-term. The latter has been disparaging about Barroso, calling him “the weakest Commission president in the history of the EU”.

The President (-Elect) is committed to defend the single market against governments using the economic crisis to push economic nationalism and protectionism. But more needs to be done to enforce current single market rules.

What should – but won’t – be done is to revise the ridiculous Commission financial regulations which are the bane of the lives of officials and consultants alike.

Management of Commission

It is to be hoped that this will be streamlined. It’s time to recognise that the old principle of collegiality no longer applies in practice. Cabinets should be smaller, staffed with experts on the relevant portfolio, and not covering all Commission policies.

Vision

Today’s Union is not looking for any grand vision. Barroso’s support from France and Germany falls far short of the support Jacques Delors received from Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand.

However, the EU needs vision on individual policies: strategic thinking is limited in its institutions and virtually non-existent in external policies. Barroso could start with the US, China, India and ASEAN.

Member States

President Barroso’s fundamental test will be whether he takes a firm lead with Member States, battling where necessary with the big ones, or whether he will continue to ensure always that they are satisfied. He no longer needs to worry about his re-appointment. The standing of the Commission vis-à-vis the other institutions has fallen during the last five years. It is vital for the European Union that this trend be reversed.

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