Last updated: September 16, 2009 7:25 pm

Barroso says vote ‘reinforced authority’

José Manuel Barroso claimed “reinforced authority” to head the European Commission on Wednesday after winning a decisive victory in his quest for a second term as president.

The centre-right leader’s triumph in a secret ballot in the European parliament, after unanimous endorsement by the 27 leaders of the European Union, gives him a freer hand to press his agenda over the next five years, including commissioner appointments.

It also removes an element of institutional uncertainty in Brussels as the EU charts a path out of the financial crisis and prepares for crucial negotiations over a global climate-change agreement in December.

During the campaign, Mr Barroso cast himself as a committed defender of Europe’s single market against governments using the economic crisis to push economic nationalism and protectionism. He also touted his environmental record and, in a nod to the leftwing, promised to focus more on the social dimensions of the economic crisis.

The 53-year-old former Portuguese prime minister won 382 of the 718 ballots cast, with 219 MEPs opposing him and 117 abstaining, giving him the absolute majority he sought.

Mr Barroso had been certain of winning a simple majority following the centre-right’s victory in June’s European elections and the disarray of the Socialists, who campaigned against him but were unable to field a candidate.

Martin Scuhlz, president of the Socialist group, said, “Mr Barroso will have many sleepless nights ahead of him,” calling the victory “narrow” and deriding him as “the weakest Commission president in the history of the EU”. 

Mr Barroso said he suspected that some socialist MEPs had defied their leaders to support him. “I want to work with everyone who believes in the European project. Everyone,” he added, extending an olive branch.

Mr Barroso will travel to Ireland this weekend to campaign for a Yes vote in next month’s referendum on the Lisbon reform treaty, which aims to streamline the EU and which supporters consider vital to its future development. He insisted on Wednesday that voters were less interested in institutional matters than jobs and emerging from the crisis.  

In reality, the margin of Mr Barroso’s victory strengthens his hand in the appointment of new European commissioners. “I honestly think I have reinforced authority. That’s democracy,” he said.

The most powerful and keenly sought posts are those covering competition policy, the internal market and trade. Mr Barroso said on Tuesday he would create a new portfolio for climate action. Countries with big manufacturing sectors are expected to lobby hard for their candidates. 

The bloc’s 27 national governments each propose one candidate for the Commission. It is up to the president whom to appoint to which job.

But the returning president is unlikely to face an entirely smooth ride over the next three months. 

Parliament holds hearings to confirm the candidates and it is possible that MEPs will force the withdrawal of one or more nominees, as happened in 2004 when they rejected Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione. 

Some analysts said Mr Barroso will run into difficulties over the next five years because of the lack of harmony between Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.

Denis MacShane, a former European affairs minister in the UK Labour government, said: “Barroso does not enjoy the unqualified support of a new Berlin-Paris axis, as Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel find it hard to get on.” 

Mr Barroso will also have to contend with business groups, which were unhappy after he promised to review employment law governing the mobility of labour across the EU. Trade unionists blame it for depressing wages. 

BusinessEurope, the pan-European employers’ association, said it expected the new Commission to deliver “an unwavering commitment to open market principles and to pushing forward the reforms needed to create more growth and jobs in Europe.”

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