Saturday, June 26, 2004

El presidente

So it looks as though a "dark horse" has entered the field and is galloping up the field, set to take the post. In the hunt for the Commission president, Portugal's prime minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso has emerged as the consensus candidate to succeed Prodi.

A lawyer by profession, Barroso, 48, also studied political science and rounded it off with a spell in the University of Geneva engaged in European studies before lecturing in law in Lisbon while holding a post as Visiting Scholar, at the University of Georgetown, USA.

He then became editor of the political periodical Revista de Ciencia Politica and in 1985 entered parliament. He was re-elected in 1987 and again in 1991, and was appointed Secretary of State, Home Affairs and then Secretary of State, Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, becoming prime minister in 2002.

He speaks good English and French, the latter being likely to endear him to the French, and, in political terms, he is right of centre, from the same stable as Chirac and Schröder, although his party is styled as the Social Democrats.

However, he is a hard-liner on the economy, making his name for imposing stringent public sector spending cuts, price and wages freezes in a successful attempt to rein in Portugal's deficit, after being the first country to incur the Commission's wrath for breaching the Stability and Growth Pact. In imposing his cuts and lay-offs, he managed to precipitate the country's first general strike in ten years. He is hardly likely, therefore, to be sympathetic to the plight of France and Germany, or other Pact defaulters, and could give them a hard time if he is appointed president.

He also supported the Iraqi war, and currently has a detachment of 148 police in the country, making him highly unpopular with the new socialist government in Spain and with his own left, whom he is trailing in the polls.

Barrosso has a reputation for being extremely ambitious, and is regarded by some as "a time bomb, waiting to explode, in his eternal quest for power". Strongly supportive of the EU constitution, he nevertheless displays a staunchly nationalistic streak and maintains a strongly independent stance when up against his more powerful neighbour, Spain.

In recent years, Spain has become the biggest source of foreign investment in Portugal and this rising tide of investment has revived fears that Madrid will once again come to rule Portugal as it did for a 60-year period that ended in 1640. Barrosso, therefore, has been riding an increasing surge of nationalist sentiment.

Altogether, this is not your classic grey bureaucrat, nor even a Delorsian zealot, wholly committed to European integration. He clearly has a mind of his own, and ambition.

If appointed, he could prove less a less than malleable president. That makes him less than ideal for the post. If he is appointed, it could well be because no one else could get near attracting enough support and the colleagues are getting desperate.

Possibly unpredictable, there is however one thing about which we can be sure – he will be very different from Prodi.

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