Crisis turns Berlusconi's photo-op in Rome into a humbling job reshuffle

Tomorrow's EU summit in Rome has been turned into a crisis meeting as Europe's leaders wrestle with an unprecedented impasse over the European Commission.

Up to five designated European Commissioners may have to be replaced or reshuffled, and the leaders of the countries that nominated them will be under pressure to back down over their choices. With an unprecedented power struggle under way over the right to decide who does what jobs in the Commission, several governments want to limit the changes for fear of setting a precedent.

The host of tomorrow's meeting is Silvio Berlusconi, who was the unwitting architect of much of yesterday's chaos in Strasbourg. Back in June, Italy's highly-rated outgoing competition Commissioner, Mario Monti, had been keen to stay in Brussels. Instead the Italian Prime Minister nominated Rocco Buttiglione.

For weeks, while MEPs were looking for relatively minor concessions, he resisted pressure to strip his Commissioner-designate of any powers over anti-discrimination measures, let alone reshuffle him. On Tuesday night Mr Berlusconi is thought to have relented, when it was clear that MEPs would vote down the Commission, but the opportunity for a relatively painless concession had been lost. Centre-right MEPs who had stood by Mr Buttliglione felt they would look foolish if there was any change.

Among those who took the toughest stand in the parliament against Mr Buttiglione was Martin Schulz, leader of the 200-strong group of socialist MEPs. It was Mr Schulz who was likened to a Nazi concentration camp guard by Mr Berlusconi during an extraordinary outburst last year.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the incoming president of the European Commission, now has the unenviable task of persuading EU leaders to agree on a distribution of jobs that will win the backing of the parliament.

In Rome, in between the signing of Europe's first constitution and picture opportunities, the incoming European Commission president will have, first of all, to get Mr Berlusconi's agreement to nominate a replacement commissioner. One diplomat said bluntly: "Barroso has toget another Commissioner nominated. He has to sort it out with Berlusconi."

Tony Blair's spokesman said, however, yesterday's setback "did not mean there would be crisis talks at the Rome summit".

One change may not be enough for a parliament that has tasted blood. Mr Schulz targeted five nominees, including two liberals: Neelie Kroes, the Dutch Commissioner-designate for competition whose links with business have provoked fears of a conflict of interest, and Mariann Fischer Boel, the Dane earmarked for the agriculture post. She performed poorly in her confirmation hearing and is also accused of conflict of interest.

The others highlighted were Ingrida Udre, designated taxation Commissioner, who has been linked to scandals in her native Latvia and who has also made Eurosceptic comments, and one socialist: Hungary's Lazlo Kovacs. His level of knowledge of his designated energy brief was exposed in his confirmation hearing.

A wider reshuffle, including one candidate from the left, would help Mr Berlusconi, who could then argue that Italy was not being singled out. His ally in Strasbourg, Hans-Gert Pottering, leader of the centre-right bloc of MEPs, said his group had ensured that Mr Buttiglione had not been isolated.

The stakes are high, particularly for Mr Barroso, who has emerged as a big loser from yesterday's drama. Although caught between conflicting pressures, he misjudged the mood of the parliament. As one MEP put it: "My concern is that we are going to get a wounded, enfeebled Barroso in power for five years. If he is not going to resign, he needs successes pretty quickly." Not, perhaps, the scenario on the minds of Europe's founding fathers when they signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

Comments