Monday, November 22, 2004

Piggy in the middle

A report from Reuters indicates that poor little Jose Manuel Barroso is sailing – if such a neutral word can be appropriate – into stormy waters. Perhaps "hurtling" would be a better one.

Amongst those who have now got over their initial indignation at Farage pointing out that the emperor has no clothes is MEP Graham Watson, leader of the 87-member strong Liberal group in the EU parliament. Even he is now saying that Jacques "wheel" Barrot should quit or be suspended until questions over his conviction have been resolved.

"To avoid serious damage to the standing of the new Commission," he says in a statement, "I call on Mr Barrot to resign, or at the very least to ask to be relieved of his duties until this matter can be discussed and resolved between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council (of ministers)".

Remarks Reuters, this dashes any hope of a political honeymoon for Barroso's 25-member commission. Actually, it is much more serious than that. With Jacques Toubon, a UMP member, pitching in to defend Barrot, he has broken the unofficial truce between French politicians that exists in the EU parliament – whereby there is an unwritten agreement not to wash dirty linen in public.

The French socialists will now scent blood and their influence will be enough to turn the whole of the 200-member PSE, the EU parliament’s socialist group, against Barrot.

The other groups, which comprise the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, and the Confederal Group of the European United Left, with 42 and 41 members, respectively, plus of course the Independence/Democracy Group (of which Farage is co-president), weighing in at 36, and finally the Union for Europe of the Nations Group with 27, put the anti-Barrot faction at 433 votes, giving it a clear majority in the 731-member parliament, discounting the independents, who number 30 – some of whom will be anti-Barrot.

Even if the 268-member EPP could hold the line in its own ranks, therefore (and that is unlikely, since the British membership, including the Conservatives – with 28 members – must surely break away) that means there are more than enough "antis" to force a vote of confidence and demand that Barroso sack Barrot.

But, as my colleague pointed out in her earlier posting, Barroso cannot actually fire a single (or any) commissioner. Each are appointed by their respective member states, and can only be withdrawn by them. That leaves the "nuclear option" of the EU parliament firing the whole commission, which would cause an unprecedented crisis, greater in proportion than the 1999 Santer crisis.

On the other hand, there is Chirac who, at this stage of the game, cannot afford to give the socialists a victory. If past experience is any guide, he will go into a huff and refuse to budge. That leaves Barroso as "piggy in the middle" unable to go anywhere, also precipitating a major crisis in the EU, with a fatally wounded commission.

So saying, the "colleagues" have a habit of drawing back from the abyss at the last moment, so the thing could all fizzle out, albeit after a few spectacular fireworks. But Chirac is already heavily wounded at home and it would be unlike the socialists to pass up an opportunity to wound him still further. Domestic politics, therefore, may dictate the game, irrespective of the damage caused to the EU.

In fact, the EU is already damaged by l’affair Barrot, so it is just a question of how much more will be caused. And that leaves Farage, who started it all. I do hope his life insurance premiums are fully paid up.

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