European democracy would be advanced by a vote against the Commission

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For an institution widely condemned as self-serving and out of touch, the EU Commission and its new president, Jose Manuel Barroso, seem determined to confirm the charges of their severest critics. In the struggle with the European Parliament over the appointment of the Italian nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, as justice commissioner, Mr Barroso has produced a series of marginal compromises. But he has still chosen to take the appointment forward to the point where the Parliament must decide today whether to vote against the whole raft of 21 new commissioners as the only means of expressing its concern over one.

For an institution widely condemned as self-serving and out of touch, the EU Commission and its new president, Jose Manuel Barroso, seem determined to confirm the charges of their severest critics. In the struggle with the European Parliament over the appointment of the Italian nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, as justice commissioner, Mr Barroso has produced a series of marginal compromises. But he has still chosen to take the appointment forward to the point where the Parliament must decide today whether to vote against the whole raft of 21 new commissioners as the only means of expressing its concern over one.

In the classic manner of institutional leaders under fire, Mr Barroso has chosen to make this an all-or-nothing battle. And in this he is being joined by the major heads of government, including Tony Blair, who are now trying to arm-twist their MEPs to approve the new commission as a matter of defending the institution.

They should not. The present rules by which the European Parliament only has the power to accept or reject the Commission en bloc - indeed the whole process by which national governments nominate the individual candidates to be commissioners - are ridiculous. At some point the governments of the member countries must revise the rules. On present trends, the only way the European Parliament will galvanise them is by producing a crisis. This could provide the opportunity.

But in a wider sense, too, the European Union is suffering from a poor reputation for accountability which its latest crisis will only serve to accentuate. In opinion poll after opinion poll, among new members such as Poland as much as old members such as France, the impression has taken root that the Union is a bureaucratic imposition which has little understanding of ordinary citizens and little responsiveness to their complaints.

Of course, the row over Mr Buttiglione is more complex, and more partisan, than a simple issue of the executive versus the legislature. The left-of-centre in Parliament, in danger of being superseded by the resurgent conservative factions, have seen in the fate of the poor Italian nominee a chance to make their weight felt in the new Parliament.

Their complaint is that Mr Buttiglione's views, as a devout Roman Catholic, an open opponent of gay marriage and a believer in the traditional role of women, make him unsuitable to act as a commissioner concerned with law in an essentially secular community. But in pursuing that point, the Italian commissioner's critics are also in danger of imposing their own prejudices. The fact that the EU is primarily secular in its politics should not bar people with private, religious convictions. Whatever Mr Buttiglione's personal views, these should not be of any relevance unless they impinge on his decisions as a commissioner.

The trouble is that, because he is nominated as justice commissioner, no one could be absolutely certain that they would not. The very fact that the Commission president, Mr Barroso, has made a series of concessions limiting his new commissioner's powers and interposing a right of review is a measure of the weakness of his position. As justice commissioner, Mr Buttiglione will always be suspect. A wiser Commission president, or one more versed in the ways of parliamentary power negotiation, might have stepped back and reconsidered his choice of portfolio for the Italian. Instead he has chosen to proceed as a matter of principle.

This is not the most promising start for a Commission president who formally starts his job on Monday and who had raised so many hopes about a new beginning for this discredited institution. It is hardly the best start either for the national leaders who are due to meet in Rome next month to sign a constitution that in many countries lacks public support. The short, sharp shock of a parliamentary reverse that would force the commission to retreat on Mr Buttiglione could do wonders to reassure voters in the EU at large that their voice can make a difference.

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