Barroso wins second EU term despite tarnished reputation

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He has been accused of being weak, mediocre and uninspiring but the EU's most high-profile figure yesterday managed to silence a chorus of criticism to clinch a second term as president of the European Commission.

Jose Manuel Barroso was forced to fight tooth and nail for a second five-year term at the helm of the EU's executive, owing his comfortable victory in part to the absence of a challenger. In an uncomfortable compromise, he was also forced to woo Eurosceptics and far-right politicians in the continent's parliament to make up the numbers, after the Socialists, the second-largest party, refused to endorse him.

Although his victory was never seriously in doubt, the former Portuguese premier was visibly relieved as results showed a comfortable majority, and many Euro MPs in the Strasbourg chamber rose to their feet. There were 382 votes in favour to 219 against, while 117 politicians abstained.

But Mr Barroso will not be allowed to forget that he won fewer votes than five years ago and he is likely to struggle to recover his reputation. He was roundly criticised for vanishing into near-obscurity during the global financial crisis, when the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country had the rotating presidency, forcefully took the reins to steer the EU through the turmoil.

And Eurosceptics such as the UK Independence Party have blasted him for pushing the Lisbon Treaty to a second referendum after the Irish voted it down during the first round.

The Socialists abstained from yesterday's vote, accusing Mr Barroso of not doing enough to clamp down on liberal, free-market policies they blame for fuelling the financial crisis.

Martin Schulz, head of the Socialist and Democrats parliamentary grouping, warned that the re-elected Mr Barroso would be the "weakest Commission president in history" and have "many sleepless nights ahead of him".

One of the first headaches is likely to be the 2 October referendum in Ireland, which could totally scupper the Lisbon Treaty if it ends in a second resounding No vote.

And even Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament and a political ally, added a note of caution as he rose to congratulate Mr Barroso after the ballot. "We are expecting a lot over the next five years," he said.

Others were more blunt, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Green Party's firebrand leader who made his name during the 1968 French student revolution and whose bloc opposed Mr Barroso as a lackey of the large member states including France and Germany.

"I think I must be hallucinating," Mr Cohn-Bendit said. "Suddenly he's turned into Jose Manuel Obama, Yes He Can! But it's too late, we know you. We've had five years of you."

But Mr Barroso brushed off questions about his credibility and said he planned to rule over the EU with a stronger hand. "It's great having this reaffirmation of support," the 53-year old said. "And I do feel that my authority has been reinforced, especially having had these very difficult five years," Mr Barroso added.

He pledged to create new Commission posts and to address the issue of excessive corporate bonuses. "If you want a strong Commission, that stands up sometimes to member states, that stands up to national egoisms, you should give the Commission the strong support it takes [to do so]," he said. "I think it's a moment of truth for Europe... If we don't act together, Europe risks being marginalised."

While not thrilled by the outcome, many MEPs directed some of the blame at the Socialists and Greens for failing to field a challenger. "It's all very well for everyone to criticise him, but no one came with up with an alternative," says Wim van de Kamp, head of the Dutch Christian Democrats. "So what did they expect?"