Commission crisis averted as Berlusconi climbs down

Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has bowed to the inevitable, abandoning his push to make Rocco Buttiglione a European Commissioner and opening the way for a solution to an unprecedented EU crisis.

The decision to dump Mr Buttiglione, who angered MEPs by describing homosexuality as "a sin", paves the way for wider changes in which four or five would-be commissioners can be reshuffled or axed.

The climbdown, seen by diplomats as inevitable, came after Mr Berlusconi met EU leaders in Rome for a ceremony to sign the EU constitution. "Buttiglione will remain a minister [in the Italian government]," he told reporters late on Friday night.

"I think that is the way it is going to end up. It is useless to deny that this is the most likely outcome after the meetings that we have had today."

Mr Berlusconi's change of heart came at the end of a week of high drama in which MEPs threatened to veto the entire European Commission, which had been due to take office tomorrow. Faced by the prospect of defeat, the incoming Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, withdrew the entire team, pleading for more time to get it right.

That has left the EU in limbo, with the outgoing Commission, led by Romano Prodi, continuing in a caretaker role until the new team wins parliamentary approval - which many not be before mid-December.

Mr Buttiglione's conservative views on gay sex and women's role in society provoked outrage because, as commissioner for justice and home affairs, he would have had some responsibility for civil liberties and anti-discrimination policy. The Catholic philosopher and friend of The Pope was the first nominee rejected by a European parliamentary committee, which came down against him in a non-binding vote, but other nominees to the Commission performed poorly during the hearings.

Before his latest announcement, Mr Berlusconi had made it clear that he would sacrifice Mr Buttiglione only if other Commissioners were targeted too, ensuring that Italy was not seen to have been singled out. That principle seems to have been agreed in Rome.

The crisis allows Mr Barroso to try and resolve the continuing question mark over conflict of interest surrounding the designated competition commissioner from the Netherlands, Neelie Kroes. Her extensive business links have forced her to agree to stand aside from cases with which she might have had a connection, leading her critics to claim she would be a "part-time commissioner".

One possibility is that the current Competition Commissioner, Mario Monti, could replace Mr Buttiglione, allowing Ms Kroes to shift to another job. But Mr Berlusconi has not yet named his new candidate and there are several contenders. The collapse of the government in Latvia may help Mr Barroso replace Ingrida Udre, would-be commissioner for taxation, who has also faced criticism over her Eurosceptic views. She was nominated by a government that is no longer in power, and the new administration could stick with the current Latvian commissioner, Sandra Kalniete.

In Rome, Mr Barroso met the new Hungarian premier, Ferenc Gyurcsany, prompting speculation that his country's commissioner-designate, Laszlo Kovacs, could be ditched. Mr Kovacs was nominated by the previous prime minister, and his poor grasp of the energy portfolio which he was allocated was exposed in parliamentary hearings.

Gary Titley, leader of Labour's 19 MEPs, said: "Common sense has prevailed, but we cannot afford to let this get out of control. The danger is that we get mixed up in a tit-for-tat struggle with the political right, and it could end up in a spiral of infighting."

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