After weeks of haggling and acrimony, European leaders agreed Tuesday to name Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso as the next president of the governing commission of a European Union divided by the Iraq war and struggling to absorb 10 new members.
The decision came at a special mini-summit in Brussels after a lengthy bout of diplomatic arm-wrestling between the two rival factions that shape EU politics today: on one side, nations led by Britain that supported the Iraq war, and, on the other, a bloc headed by France and Germany, the antiwar duo that are Europe’s core powers. A number of candidates fell by the wayside because they were rejected by one camp or the other.
The chorus of positive reaction to Durao Barroso, a measured center-rightist known for fiscal austerity reforms that have propelled modernization in Portugal, suggested that the leaders had reached a happy compromise.
The choice was clearly a boost for Britain, an ambivalent member of Europe that has not yet accepted the common Euro currency. Britain teamed with Italy’s pro-U.S. government in the wrangling with the Franco-German alliance over the presidency of the European Commission.
It also seemed to be good news for the Bush administration, whose relations with Europe have deteriorated in recent years. During the buildup to the Iraq war last year, Durao Barroso played host to the landmark meeting in Portugal’s Azores islands where President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar finalized their strategy for confronting Saddam Hussein. Portugal has contributed a small contingent of police to U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq.
“I think this should make things more peaceful in terms of transatlantic relations,” said Florence Deloche-Gaudez, a Europe expert at the Institute of Political Studies here. “He’s seen as rather pro-American and will probably look at things less in opposition to the U.S. But from the perspective of France, he wasn’t associated with Iraq as closely, as emphatically, as Blair and Aznar.”
In fact, French leaders went out of their way to celebrate the Portuguese leader’s nomination, which requires ratification by the European Parliament.
“I see nothing but advantages in the approval of his candidacy,” said French President Jacques Chirac, adding that he had “a lot of respect and affection” for Durao Barroso. Chirac noted that the Portuguese leader spoke impeccable French as well as Spanish and English.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said he thought Durao Barroso would be an evenhanded executive who would not “look at the world through American glasses.”
If ratified, Durao Barroso, 48, would replace Romano Prodi of Italy on Nov. 1 and serve for five years.
Durao Barroso’s emergence resulted partly from the fact that the center-right majority in the European Parliament wanted a president of the European Commission with a like-minded political bent, analysts said. They theorized that deal-making had probably centered on the distribution of the 25 seats on the European Commission.
Durao Barroso, a lawyer by training and a Maoist in his student days, would have his hands full putting together the commission, which acts as a Cabinet for the governing body. The already cumbersome EU bureaucracy recently expanded to absorb 10 new nations in Central and Eastern Europe that were more likely to lean toward Britain, diluting the power of France and Germany.
“We will see if he has the leadership to manage this,” Deloche-Gaudez said. “It could be difficult. France and Germany may have conditioned their acceptance of him in exchange for certain portfolios. This raises questions because other candidates were better-known on the European scene. It’s a bit worrisome to have a candidate chosen essentially by default.”
Although Durao Barroso is regarded as a serious and capable leader, the strife surrounding his selection does not bode well for a diverse European Union as it tries to advance the task of political and economic integration, critics said.
“This episode will rest as a sad illustration of the disunity and inability of the European leaders to cooperate,” Le Monde newspaper declared in an editorial, saying that Durao Barroso emerged “because he fomented the least opposition. This method is not worthy of the ambition that Europe should have for itself or for the importance of the post.”