Jose Manuel Barroso, the incoming president of the European Commission, provoked comment when he broke with Brussels tradition by toiling through the holidays to decide the share-out of jobs for his team. Yesterday, the former Portuguese prime minister unveiled the portfolios for the 24 men and women who will from 1 November steer the the European Union over the coming five years. It appears to have been a summer well spent.
The new Commission president, an unknown quantity outside Portugal when he was chosen for the post, was initially dismissed by some as a "lowest common denominator", picked only because he was the candidate who drew fewest objections. It looked as though he might be a weakling, vulnerable to bullying by bigger governments. But his first decisions show him to be an astute politician, impressively equipped for the wheeling and dealing his job requires.
Like all Commission presidents, Mr Barroso was hampered by not being allowed to pick and choose the members of his team in the way a prime minister would. Governments still jealously guard their right to appoint those they want to reward. In theory, the president enjoys sole power to allocate portfolios. But the political reality is that even in this he had to achieve a delicate political balance, satisfying the big states while also demonstrating that he is not in their pockets.
Commissioners are, of course, supposed to serve in the common interest, leaving their nationalities behind when they disembark in Brussels. In the real world, however, Mr Barroso also had to allay the fears of the smaller countries that power would be carved up between first- and second-class commissioners. And it was vital to offer the newcomer states a reasonable show in the pecking order. Further challenges were to find jobs for 24 commissioners when there are really only about a half a dozen big jobs, and to address the Commission's lamentable gender imbalance. On all counts Mr Barroso appears to have risen to the task. For a start there are eight women; not perfect, but by the standards of most national governments, one-third is not bad.
Mr Barroso also deserves praise for appointing the first-ever commissioner in charge of selling Europe to its citizens. She faces perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as parliaments and electorates in the 25 states are asked over the next few months to approve the Union's first constitution. Britain, France and Germany have been given big jobs. But Mr Barroso shared out the most powerful positions - competition, trade, economy and the internal market - among big and small.
And crucially, in the interests of the euro, he resisted pressure from the French and Germans to be given unfettered oversight of economic policy.
Peter Mandelson is to be the new trade commissioner, a coveted post which will give him the responsibility for managing global trade negotiations on behalf of the 25 EU nations. Arguably, however, it is not the prize it might seem, because Mr Mandelson will have to fend off interference from the powerful new enterprise and industry commissioner - the German, Günther Verheugen, who gains an important co-ordinating role. Mr Mandelson also faces a turf battle when the new European foreign minister Javier Solana takes up his post in 2006.
But the biggest surprise was that Mr Barroso gave charge of competition and the internal market to the Netherlands and Ireland respectively. Both are areas in which the French and Germans have repeatedly clashed with the outgoing Commission in pursuit of their own narrow national interests. This was Mr Barosso's boldest demonstration of the independence so vital to his role, and as such is reassuring. If his first act sets the tone for the rest of his presidency, he will be a difficult president to push around and will safeguard his own position's essential neutrality. Anyone who truly has the interests of Europe at heart will warmly welcome this.
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