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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Analysis: EU team a hard sell

By Oana Lungescu
BBC correspondent in Brussels

The incoming European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, has resisted pressure to reshuffle his team, despite the controversy over some of the 25 new commissioners, particularly the Italian conservative Rocco Buttiglione.

Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso
Mr Barroso faced a grilling by MEPs on Thursday

Mr Barroso said he was very confident that his team would get the approval of the European Parliament next week.

During a meeting with parliamentary leaders, Mr Barroso promised he would take personal charge of EU policies on anti-discrimination and civil liberties to avoid any clash with Mr Buttiglione, who had described homosexuality as a sin.

But several political groups in the European Parliament insisted they would vote against the whole EU executive unless Mr Barroso reshuffled his team.

Few expected Mr Barroso to do so just 10 days before it is expected to take charge - and he stood firm on Thursday.

He promised instead to curtail Mr Buttiglione's powers as future justice and security commissioner.

Mr Buttiglione was narrowly rejected by the parliament's civil liberties committee for describing homosexuality as a sin and marriage as the best way for the wife to be protected by her husband.

'Emotionally charged'

Mr Barroso promised he would personally take the lead of a new group of commissioners dealing with anti-discrimination issues, of which Mr Buttiglione would be a member.

He also produced a letter from the controversial Italian politician which, he said, expressed "deep regret at the problems resulting from his appearance in front of the civil liberties committee".

Rocco Buttiglione
Buttiglione: A devout Catholic close to the Vatican

Mr Barroso said Mr Buttiglione assured him in his letter that it was never his intention to offend or upset anybody, least of all women or the gay community.

He said the letter also confirmed Mr Buttiglione's complete opposition to any kind of discrimination on any grounds.

In his letter, Mr Buttiglione agrees that "words so emotionally charged as 'sin' should perhaps not be introduced in the political debate."

It is a view fully endorsed by Mr Barroso.

He said there was a need to separate European policy from the officials' own personal or religious beliefs, especially after eastwards expansion had brought a variety of views into the EU.

Vote on edge

Mr Barroso recalled that he had made a particular effort to include more women than ever before on his team: eight out of 25.

And he pledged he would not hesitate to ask any commissioner to resign if the need arose.

Martin Schulz
Socialist leader Martin Schulz strongly opposes Buttiglione

But he reminded the European Parliament that it can only endorse or reject the whole team when it votes next Wednesday.

He also expressed the hope that a sense of compromise would lead to a solution.

"I've asked the parliament to consider the situation we are in, to take a balanced view on the project of my commission and I'm very confident that we'll get the support of the clear majority of the members of the European Parliament."

But the vote remains on edge. Mr Barroso needs a majority of the 732 MEPs.

Hans-Gert Poettering, the leader of the Christian-Democrats, the biggest parliamentary group, with 268 seats, pledged his support at a turning-point for the EU.

"As a Christian," he said, "I'm hopeful, that is part of my personal belief, and so I'm optimistic that the European Parliament will vote in favour of the commission next Wednesday."

Mr Barroso can also expect the support of the eurosceptics and perhaps some of the 88 liberal deputies.

Constitutional crisis

But the Socialists, who with 200 seats make up the second biggest group in the European Parliament, along with the Communists and the Greens, insist the situation remains unacceptable.

EU commissioners-designate stand together with European Commission President  Jose Manuel Durao Barroso (3rd left in front row)
MEPs voiced doubts about several new commissioners

The Socialists' leader, Martin Schulz, said he saw no reason to recommend that his group change its position.

"On the contrary," he said, "I think that we as Socialists should not give a vote of confidence to this commission."

But Mr Buttiglione is not the only cause of concern for MEPs.

They have also criticised the Dutch businesswoman, Neelie Kroes, appointed in charge of the powerful competition portfolio and Hungary's Foreign Minister, Laszlo Kovacs, set to take charge of energy.

The former Danish minister, Mariann Fischer-Boel, nominated for agriculture, and Latvia's former parliamentary speaker Ingrida Udre, supposed to be in charge of taxation, have also been criticised.

A vote against the whole lot would be unprecedented.

It would lead to a constitutional crisis, just as the EU prepares to sign its first constitution.

A vote in favour, however, would considerably strengthen Mr Barroso's position at the beginning of his five-year term.

EU chief moves to shore up team
21 Oct 04 |  Europe


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