I made the right choices for European Commission, says Barroso

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The Independent Online

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, yesterday backed France's European Commissioner, Jacques Barrot, and said he had no regrets over his handling of a dramatic showdown with MEPs last month.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, yesterday backed France's European Commissioner, Jacques Barrot, and said he had no regrets over his handling of a dramatic showdown with MEPs last month.

On his first day in office, Mr Barroso was forced into a strong defence of M. Barrot, whose expunged French conviction over a party funding scandal in 2000 was revealed last week. And, of the row over Italy's Rocco Buttiglione, whose description of homosexuality as "a sin" provoked an unprecedented crisis in the EU, Mr Barroso said he made "absolutely the right choices at all moments".

In an interview with The Independent and other European newspapers, Mr Barroso also put himself on collision course with the British government, rejecting its demands to freeze future EU spending, and supporting moves to spread the benefit of the UK's budget rebate to other countries.

The row over Mr Buttiglione resolved, Mr Barroso has been plunged immediately into a new argument over M. Barrot. His suspended prison sentence was set aside under a presidential pardon which, according to French law, leaves him with a clean record. Though Mr Barroso says he ought to have been told about the conviction in advance, he stood by M. Barrot, who yesterday began work as the transport commissioner.

Mr Barroso said: "I support 100 per cent all my commissioners." He also argued that a letter written by M. Barrot to the president of the European Parliament to explain the circumstances, was sufficient. "The letter responds to all these allegations. I consider the letter gives all the necessary clarifications," Mr Barroso said.

With the socialist group of MEPs appearing to draw back from a fresh confrontation yesterday, Mr Barroso is confident he can avoid another crisis. The former Portuguese premier seemed relaxed, joking that his mandate will be "exciting".

But he was accused of misjudging the crisis over Mr Buttiglione, which prevented his Commission taking office for three weeks. In a meeting room in the refurbished Berlaymont building, he had lost none of his self-assurance. "With the information I had at the time, yes, I made absolutely the right choices at all moments," he said.

He also rejected the notion that the saga illustrated an autocratic style of leadership. "I am not the best person to judge," he said, "but you are going to discover that I am not at all that kind of person. I listen a lot. I am not at all an autocratic person." Many MEPs believe the Commission president should have acted more quickly to defuse the gathering crisis but Mr Barroso insisted that axing or reshuffling Mr Buttiglione earlier would have infuriated centre-right MEPs, creating a separate problem.

Mr Barroso said: "I would have no problem at all saying 'no it was a mistake. I don't know the parliament well, I know much better my [national] parliament'. I would have no problem admitting it. But the fact was that was that, from the very beginning, I could see what had happened, I was considering the possibility of a no vote from the very beginning."

The Commission president says he is concerned about the polarisation of the European Parliament, and the declining support among some traditionally pro-European parties, such as the French socialists. Mr Barroso has problems with national governments too. Britain is one of a number of net contributors into the EU's budget which has demanded a ceiling of 1 per cent of EU gross national income for European expenditure - freezing it close to current levels - in the next spending period, beginning in 2007. Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer also defended Britain's annual budget rebate worth about €4bn to 5bn annually, and dismissed a Commission plan to share its benefits with other nations that pay more into the EU than they take.

Mr Barroso said the Commission's plan, which would mean a higher ceiling, is "the right one". He argued: "If you want more ambitions for Europe you have to have the means to fulfil those ambitions. We cannot say we want to do more, for example, in terms of justice and home affairs, cohesion policy, for new member states, most of them clearly under the average of the EU, and to have networks for research, for energy and transport - and keep the same level." The Commission president backed the principle of sharing out the rebate, though was vague about the mechanism on the table.

He argued: "There is a great awareness in many countries that we have to look globally at the net contributor situation. It's a European problem. The so-called British rebate was founded when we did not have 25 countries. Now we have to look at this seriously to try to find a fair solution to take into consideration legitimate concerns of all the net contributors."