European Commission


Barroso wins strong backing from European Parliament

19 November 2004

Newly-appointed European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso won predictably strong backing from the European Parliament when it finally voted, yesterday, to approve his new team. Of the almost seven hundred MEPs voting, 449 were in favour and only 149 against, while 82 abstained.

The result provoked a familiar wave of platitudes. Mr Barroso was quoted as being "extremely happy with this result", which is at least a rational response, while European Parliament President Josep Borrell, whose grasp on reality seems somewhat weaker, described it as a "significant milestone" for European democracy.

Let us look, then, at this milestone. Just five weeks ago, Mr Barroso was forced to withdraw his original team in order to avoid a humiliating vote of rejection by MEPs.

Rocco Buttiglione, Berlusconi's nomination, was declared unacceptable due to his holding bigoted views on homosexuality and women. Four others had their competence questioned, and Barroso was asked to either replace or reshuffle them. Latvia's appointee was also replaced and Hungary's man was moved from energy to taxation. Dutch nominee for the post of competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes, was left in place, despite clear conflicts of interest and a history of what might generously be seen as poor judgement. Whilst the changes were slightly better than cosmetic, they can hardly be called sweeping.

Nevertheless, it was entirely predictable that the new line-up would be approved, just as it was inevitable that the Parliament would pass, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution which, if accepted by the Commission, would oblige its President to either ask a Commissioner to resign if Parliament demands that he or she goes, or to explain his failure to do so. In addition, if the team is reshuffled or a member replaced, hearings of the reassigned or newly-appointed Commissioner would have to be held before he or she could start work. Mr Barroso promised to "examine closely" the proposal and even went so far as to call it "a good basis for negotiations."

Ideally, the Parliament would like the same power as that enjoyed, for example, by the US Senate, which can reject outright individual nominations to the President's cabinet and has on a number of occasions done so. The Parliament, on the other hand, has the power only to reject the commission in its entirety. However, this would require the agreement of all 25 member states, which is not going to happen. A sort of "gentlemen's agreement" with the Commission President is much easier to achieve, though hardly a great leap forward in popular power. Nevertheless, MEPs and mainstream journalists are talking gleefully of a "shift in power".

Others are less impressed. Francis Wurtz, President of the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) of 41 MEPs, described the changes as mere "slight of hand", and as an example of an elite agreement which actually "fuels a crisis while pretending to resolve it." Mr Wurtz pointed out that "only five months ago an absolute majority of European voters demonstrated a clear disaffection in regard to the European institutions" and wondered "what message they can have received from (Barosso's) nominations." The new nominees, just as much as the original line-up, reflected more than was the case for any of their predecesors, "the cult of the market above all."

The Left Group were joined by Greens, the Euro-sceptic group and a minority of social democrats in rejecting the revised line-up. Members of these groups made some telling points in explaining their votes, but nobody inside or outside the Parliament seems to have noted what to us at Spectre appears the most important aspect of the whole business.

In a democracy, the state asks its citizens its opinion, usually about who should represent them in decision-making bodies, but sometimes, in referenda and other consultation exercises, about constitutional or policy issues. The citizens give their answer, and the state acts accordingly.

Okay, okay, we know it isn't always quite that straightforward, and the European Union is not the only body in the world which claims to be democratic but which falls well short of being anything of the sort. However, it may be unique in regularly asking questions - or having its member states do so - which have two possible answers, one of which leads to a "crisis". this has happened regularly in referenda, and it has now happened in a vote at the European Parliament. What sort of democracy is it which asks the people or their representatives to vote, then says that if they vote one way instead of the other the result is an "unprecedented crisis"?

Spectre offers no prize whatsoever for correct answers to this.