EC President Jose Manuel Barroso backed down today only hours before the European Parliament appeared set to veto his 24 member executive.
He asked – and was given – a delay in today’s vote on the new commission after it became increasingly clear the European Parliament would veto the team, MEPs said.
“We are saying there will not be a vote today,” said Johannes Swoboda, the Austrian vice-president of the Socialist group. “There will be another proposal” from Barroso that would lead to “a new commission with changes,” he said.
It was unclear when the vote would be rescheduled. The current Parliament session ends tomorrow and the next is set for the week of November 15.
A negative vote would have thrown the European Union into institutional turmoil and left the European Commission without proper day-to-day management as of Monday, when the new commission was to take office.
The European Union’s 732 member assembly was to hold a vote vote after midday on the new EU executive, but it looked doubtful Barroso had enough backing to get the simple majority he needs.
A majority of parties, including the Socialists, Greens and Communists – who together can muster 283 votes – were threatening to veto Barroso’s team because of strong opposition to Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione, the proposed justice commissioner who called homosexuality a sin and has been criticised for his conservative views on women and marriage.
Socialist officials estimated 362 MEPs would have voted against the commission and 345 in favour.
“He’s done the numbers and knows he doesn’t have a majority,” said Denmark’s Jens Peter Bonde, co-leader of the euro-sceptic Independence and Democracy group.
Barroso was holding joint talks with the leaders of the three largest political factions, the centre-right European People’s Party, the Socialists and the Liberals.
According to reports today, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been searching for a last-minute solution under pressure from Barroso.
One suggestion was that Buttiglione should step down, a move that the commissioner-designate has refused, newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Stampa reported.
Another option was to replace Buttiglione, an option that Berlusconi discussed with his allies Tuesday, Corriere said.
Possible replacements include Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, former economy minister Giulio Tremonti and former commissioner Emma Bonino.
Unlike other presidents, Barroso does not have the power to name his own cabinet, just to assign the portfolios to the candidates sent by their governments. He has shown his stubborn streak before, when he resisted pressure from Paris and Berlin to give high-profile economic jobs to their men.
MEPs can only vote to accept or reject the entire team and not individual commissioners, and in the past the vote has been a routine procedure with little opposition.
If the delay stretches beyond the weekend, outgoing Commission President Romano Prodi is expected to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new one has been assembled.
The centre-right European People’s Party, which has 268 votes, is backing Barroso. But around 20 British Conservatives were wavering, and were expected to abstain or vote against the incoming Commission, officials said.
Meanwhile, 50 members of the 88 strong Liberal Democrats, widely seen as the party which could throw the decision either way, said they too would vote against Barroso.
A rejection of Barroso’s team would have humiliated EU leaders, which proposed the nominees, as they head to Rome to sign the EU’s constitution, which still faces referendums before it can come into force.
With the EU’s popularity at an all time low across the 25 member nations, Barroso told MEPs during a debate that the bloc can ill afford a protracted political battle.
He warned a rejection could damage the EU’s image with its citizens and cast a shadow over the EU’s constitutional signing ceremony.