Pressure grows on Barroso to choose new Commission in days

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The incoming European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, is under growing pressure to appoint a new team of commissioners.

At the signing ceremony for the EU constitution in Rome, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, said he was counting on a solution to the unprecedented power vacuum within two weeks.

"I will not speak of a crisis if, within 14 days, the matter is resolved," he said.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said the change of personnel would be "not just one" and that "switching portfolios on its own will not solve it", suggesting a wider reshuffle than simply axeing Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's controversial nominee.

Mr Ahern said Mr Barroso and MEPs "can get it done by 15 November", the next opportunity the European Parliament will have to approve the entire Commission. That would meanagreement on a line-up to allow MEPs to hold confirmation hearings by mid-November.

On Wednesday, Mr Barroso was forced to withdraw his entire Commission when MEPs made it clear they would vote against the new team, which had been due to take office next week. The outgoing Commission, led by Romano Prodi, will continue in caretaker mode.

The crisis was sparked by Mr Buttiglione's controversial description of homosexuality as "a sin", his conservative vision of women's role in society and criticism of single mothers.

But other commissioners-designate have been targeted by MEPs, and the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, has made it clear that he will not accept the singling out of his candidate.

Mr Berlusconi told Il Meassaggero: "Other people are also going to have to take a step back. If we are included in a batch of sacrifices then that won't be a problem."

While there was public support for Mr Barroso from EU leaders, including Mr Ahern, the French president, Jacques Chirac, sent a warning shot across his bows by commenting on claims that Mr Barroso had tried to win support for his team from far-right MEPs last week.

"France and other countries would not have accepted it," said M Chirac, when asked about the prospect of the Barroso team being shored up by the far right.

Mr Barroso held talks last week with the French National Front deputy Jean-Claude Martinez. According to Le Monde, M. Chirac protested to Mr Barroso about the possibility of a commission being voted through on a slim majority including the far right.

Mr Barroso said yesterday that he had held meetings with all elected MEPs who requested them, but never sought to rely on their support. He appeared to confirm the idea of the wider reshuffle, saying: "I will go back to some prime ministers so that I can get the best choices." But there was no formal declaration to the EU heads of government yesterday, and negotiations were kept strictly private.

High on the list of those Mr Barroso is likely to reshuffle or axe is the Dutch nominee for competition commissioner, Neelie Kroes. She has faced accusations of a conflict of interest because of business links and has had to agree to stand aside from cases with which she might have had a connection.

The Dutch premier, Jan Peter Balkenende, repeated his support for her yesterday.

A change of government in Latvia may help Mr Barroso to replace Ingrida Udre, also under fire for 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.

There could also be efforts to prompt the new Hungarian premier, Ferenc Gyurcsany, to ditch his country's commissioner-designate, Laszlo Kovacs, who was nominated by the previous prime minister. Mr Kovacs's poor grasp of the energy portfolio was exposed in parliamentary hearings.

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