Barroso survives confidence debate over free holiday with Greek tycoon

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has survived an embarrassing no-confidence motion in the European Parliament as a row over his free holiday with a Greek shipping tycoon provoked deep ructions among Conservatives MEPs.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has survived an embarrassing no-confidence motion in the European Parliament as a row over his free holiday with a Greek shipping tycoon provoked deep ructions among Conservatives MEPs.

The vast majority of MEPs rallied behind Mr Barroso, who came under fire just four days before France votes on a crucial referendum on the European constitution.

However, the debate provoked a bitter row within the European conservative group which opposed the no-confidence motion. Its leader, Hans Gert Pöttering, said that one British Tory MEP, Roger Helmer, had "excluded himself" from membership of the group by accusing its leadership of twisting the arms of Mr Barroso's critics.

Last night Mr Helmer's Conservative whip was suspended, and the threat of expulsion hangs over four other British Conservatives who defied their party line and signed the no-confidence motion tabled by the UK Independence Party MEP, Nigel Farage.

Despite his political escape, the debate symbolised the shaky start made by Mr Barroso since he took over as European Commission president after losing a power struggle with MEPs in October last year.

Asked to account for his holiday aboard Spiros Latsis's 51ft yacht last August, Mr Barroso described the motion as "unfair, unjustified, illegitimate and absurd". He added: "We never dealt with any commercial subjects at all. There was no link between the cruise and my work."

He went on the cruise shortly before a Latsis company received European Commission approval for state aid worth €10m (£6.8m). However, the cruise was also before Mr Barroso took up his post and the state aid decision was taken by the previous European Commission.

"As to the Commission's decision to authorise state aid in Greece, it was taken by the previous Commission at a time when I had no responsibility," Mr Barroso said.

All the parliament's big groups rallied round the Commission president, partly because the motion was seen as an attempt by British Eurosceptics to embarrass Mr Barroso on the eve of the French referendum. If a vote is called, Mr Barroso is certain to win.

Meanwhile, Mr Pöttering reacted furiously to claims by Mr Helmer that MEPs were threatened in an effort to force them to withdraw backing for the motion. "By his behaviour he has excluded himself from our group," said Mr Pöttering, who is also threatening to expel four other Tories who backed the no-confidence motion: Chris Heaton-Harris, Daniel Hannan, David Sumberg and Martin Callanan.

Though the factual case against Mr Barroso appeared to be weak, his reaction has raised a series of questions and may have strengthened the case for a new committee to oversee issues such as conflict of interest.

Initially, the Commission president refused to answer a parliamentary question on his holiday arrangements from Mr Farage but he later confirmed a German newspaper story about the holiday.

Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner, had also refused to answer a similar question about a trip, though details of a Caribbean holiday over the new year later emerged.

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