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Antigay remarks spark EU row

Parliament challenges conservative appointee Wednesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2004



PARIS

For a man belittled months ago as an obscure weakling, Jose Manuel Barroso is stirring up a lot of trouble.

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By stubbornly defending the appointment of an Italian minister who has criticized homosexuality and single motherhood, the incoming European Commission president is locked in a power struggle with the European Parliament that threatens to precipitate an institutional crisis - and undermine his moves to push Europe to the right.

The trouble began when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appointed Rocco Buttiglione to the Commission. (Unlike other presidents, EU Commission chiefs do not pick their cabinets; they merely assign jobs to commissioners named by their governments.)

As prospective commissioner for justice, freedom and security, Mr. Buttiglione, a conservative Catholic, and friend of the Pope, told a European parliament committee that he regarded homosexuality as a sin, and marriage as an institution for women to have children and enjoy the protection of a man.

Buttiglione's views, well beyond the boundaries of modern mainstream European mores, drew widespread criticism, and the committee vetoed his appointment.

Under EU rules, however, Parliament cannot reject commissioners individually, it can vote only to confirm or reject the whole 24 member Commission.

Thus, Barroso runs a very real risk to day of seeing his whole Commission, picked to lead the European Union for the next five years, vetoed by the European Parliament over his stubborn defense of one unpopular commissioner.

Mr. Barroso's decision to brazen it out with Parliament, risking an unprecedented institutional crisis, follows his readiness to snub some of the most powerful governments in the EU when he shared out Commission jobs recently.

His refusal to give all the heavyweight portfolios to the biggest member states won him plaudits then for his independence of mind.

"He doesn't lack for self confidence," says John Palmer, head of the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels. "We'll see if his judgment is right."

Barroso emerged as a compromise candidate to lead the Commission - the driving force behind the EU that both proposes legislation and enforces it - when the 25 member states failed to agree on any of the leading contenders.

A former conservative Portuguese prime minister with no name recognition outside his own country, Barroso moved quickly to set his stamp on the EU, naming free-market advocates to the top economic Commission posts and promising to make a revival of Europe's lagging economies his top priority.

Fluent in several languages, he revealed himself as a good communicator, and as a longtime friend of the United States he seemed well placed to help patch up transatlantic trust that had been damaged over the Iraq war.

That did not necessarily win him friends in every capital, however. Paris was affronted when he gave the French commissioner the relatively lowly transport job, and French officials noted darkly that the top economic posts had gone to commissioners from Britain, Ireland, and The Netherlands, noted for their free-market, pro-American outlooks.

The question now is whether the Buttiglione imbroglio will weaken Barroso's standing before he has even begun to implement his program. Last week he offered a compromise: He himself would chair a special subcommittee overseeing human rights and antidiscrimination questions, taking them out of the controversial Italian's hands.

Parliament members say Wednesday's vote could go either way. A veto would throw the EU into crisis.

"He is caught in crossfire between the Parliament, which sees an opportunity to get more power, and government leaders who do not want to cede the principle that they name commissioners," says Steven Everts, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London.

At the same time, say critics, Barroso should have known that Buttiglione would be a controversial choice for the Justice and Freedom post: He has argued that homosexuals do not deserve to be protected by antidiscrimination legislation.

"Barroso has handled this affair very, very badly," argues Thijs Berman, a Dutch Socialist member of parliament. "He has been forcing his position on parliament, not dialoguing with us."

If his opponents in parliament blink, and Barroso wins the showdown, he will take office having asserted his authority in the face of both powerful national governments and parliament.

"It is too early to write him off as a weakling," says Everts.

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