Has Europe lost its appetite for Barroso?

BRUSSELS — European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso may be doing more networking than noshing at dinner tonight with the 27 heads of state of the European Union — because they will be discussing his political future. Barroso is facing a last-minute campaign called “Stop Barroso” designed to keep him from staying in his current position.

Last week things looked better for Barroso. He had finally gotten France and Germany to agree that he should be given a second term. Though Barroso is considered the only credible candidate and already had the support of both the outgoing Czech European Union presidency and the incoming Swedish EU presidency, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had been an especially difficult sell. Sarkozy endorsed Barroso last year, then withdrew his support. Recently, flanked by German President Angela Merkel, Sarkozy unenthusiastically re-endorsed Barroso on the condition that he come up with a reinvigorated agenda for the next five years. (Read Barroso’s letter to the European Council outlining his priorities.)

The Commission president will present these ideas at dinner in what’s being described as a sort of job interview with the 27 EU presidents and prime ministers. He’ll then be required to leave the room for their deliberations.

Barroso has not inspired great shows of support from corners other than his own party, European People’s Party, the largest political grouping in the European Parliament. He was a controversial choice for his first term in 2004, and more recently has been criticized for what is seen as an unimaginative approach to the financial crisis, for not shepherding approval of the Lisbon Treaty and even for continuing to drive a big SUV while promoting environmental-protection policies.

At the same time, Barroso's backers say he managed to quell the worst of member states' protectionist impulses during the financial crisis, helped force a deal between Russia and Ukraine in the January gas crisis, and overall represents the best option for continuity during the economic downturn and hopes for a global climate deal.

But Barroso doesn’t just need to cultivate personal approval at this head-of-state summit. He wants speed, hoping that his second term will be approved soon even though his commission’s term ends only in November.

The term will end after a hoped-for re-vote in Ireland on the Lisbon reform treaty. An Irish “yes” could end the hesitation which also holds up the treaty in the Czech Republic and Poland. The treaty's implementation would lead to a new configuration for EU leadership posts.

Though part of the former Portuguese prime minister’s job as Commission president is to campaign tirelessly for EU-wide ratification of the treaty that bears his capital’s name, Barroso's chances for a second term could diminish if he is forced to wait until ratification.

The Lisbon treaty would create a fixed-term president of Council of the European Union, as opposed to the current presidency that rotates between countries every six months, as well as a position that’s unofficially called EU “foreign minister.” If those two positions are up for grabs at the same time as the Commission presidency, it could result in messy horse-trading among political parties and member states.

Under such a scenario, there’s no guarantee Barroso would emerge with the job — or that his European People’s Party, the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, would fight to keep that position over, for example, the Council presidency. Part of the Commission president's power derives from his responsibility for presenting a slate of commissioners. In exchange for their support of the Commission president, member states have an unspoken expectation that they will receive a plum Commission appointment. If someone other than Barroso eventually becomes Commission president, years of political investment in him by member states will have been for naught.

But it’s not any particular head of state who poses the biggest potential threat to Barroso’s hopes, to say nothing of his appetite at dinner. Rather, it's Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament who also serves as president of the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) political grouping.

“We must stop Barroso!” shouts the "Stop Barroso" website unveiled this week by Cohn-Bendit and supporters, although the campaign itself was announced back in March with a call for other parties to present their own candidates (which didn’t happen).

Even without alternative nominees, Cohn-Bendit pressed ahead with quashing the Barroso nomination. At a press conference on Tuesday, he insisted that it’s not Barroso personally who is his main target, but rather the fact that his reappointment would be pushed through at this early date. That claim seemed a bit disingenuous given both the name of the campaign and the fact that at a press conference Cohn-Bendit gleefully played a video mocking Barroso.

Since the EU's legislative body must confirm Barroso, this opposition is more than mere disappointment or annoyance for him. The Socialists, the second-largest group in parliament, and some factions inside the Liberal group, the third-largest, also have expressed discomfort with an early reappointment of the Commission president.

Cohn-Bendit asserted that even a “lot of members of this parliament who are in favor of Barroso themselves are against this method.”

All this controversy leaves pro-Barroso leaders to adjust their words accordingly Thursday. He will still have to make the pitch for himself over dinner but can already expect strong support from heads of state.

He won’t have long to savor that, however; regardless of what the 27 say tonight, he’ll have to move on quickly to sweet-talking the 736-member parliament which reconvenes in mid-July.

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