Barroso holds his own in spectacular brawl with Greens
10.09.09 @ 17:43
BRUSSELS - Europe's most senior official, Jose Manuel Barroso, entered the lion's den - or perhaps, a pit of Green vipers - on Wednesday (10 September) night when he battled the cutting, sarcastic Green co-leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and his fellow eco-deputies at a hearing in the European Parliament over his re-appointment.
Mr Barroso has the backing of the right and centre-right in the house, but needs support from the Liberals or Socialists if he is to secure the majority he needs to win the post.
But it is the Greens, the parliament's fourth largest grouping, and Mr Cohn-Bendit in particular, who have been leading the charge against granting Mr Barroso his wish.
The party believes the president is beholden to industry when it comes to tackling climate change or any other environmental issue, that he favours big business over social justice and that the deregulatory approach which he advocates led to the current economic crisis.
All this week, the commission chief has been meeting with each of the political factions in the parliament to try to secure backing, but only the Greens decided to hold their hearing in public.
They should have sold tickets to this wrestling match, and offered popcorn and hot dogs in the committee room. The standing-room-only chamber in the European Parliament was filled with reporters, MEPs, their assistants and anyone who wanted to see that rarest of Brussels events - an out-and-out political brawl.
Mr Cohn Bendit, a Franco-German former radical who stood on the barricades of Paris during the évènements of 1968, started off gently, while Mr Barroso opened in more combative style.
"What we don't understand is why you want to push forward with a decision on the presidency of the commission before we know the result of the Lisbon referendum in Ireland," he said, explaining that the legal advice they had received suggested that to move ahead with the nomination could be considered illegal.
"Look, you're already totally against me," Mr Barroso responded. "I don't understand that ...The Greens are amongst the most pro-European of parties and there is a convergence between us on many questions: climate change, energy, fundamental rights ...But even before this discussion, you have decided: 'Stop Barroso!'"
The commission chief said that if his re-appointment was put off, it would result in a "lame duck" president at a time when Europe needs to be strong, highlighting the precariousness of the global economic situation.
"You're against me. You're totally against me. Which is your right," he said, gesticulating expressively and batting away the Green leader's attempts to interrupt. "But do not attack the institution over which I preside and the interests of Europe."
"We have to have clarity, leadership on the road to Copenhagen," he said after further debate, referring to tough talks ahead of the global climate summit in December.
German MEP Rebecca Harms, the co-president of the Green group alongside Mr Cohn-Bendit, reacted: "I'm sorry to say this, but whether you are a lame duck or not, this is an opinion which is not decided in three months, but a position that the public has already taken."
'No one more ambitious on climate'
On the question of his support for big business, Mr Barroso said: "There has been a caricature of myself as a kind of neo-liberal ...I am for a European competitive agenda but I am deeply committed to the social values of the European Union."
Various other MEPs also accused Mr Barroso of buckling before the larger member states, the automobile industry and BusinessEurope, the federation of the biggest enterprises on the continent, and of watering down EU climate change policies.
The commission chief said he had hoped that out of all the policy topics, the Greens would be by his side on global warming.
"I expect at least one word of congratulations. It was this commission that presented the climate package. I have Nobel prize winners offering congratulations," he said, exasperated that the Greens voiced only criticism of his climate strategy. "It is only us that have committed to binding targets. No one is more ambitious."
"I really believe sometimes you're shooting at the wrong target."
The president suggested that the MEPs aim their fire instead at EU member states and "national egotism" rather than the commission.
At one point, Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP, asked what had happened to Mr Barroso over the years to make him change his political stripes. Before becoming the conservative prime minister of his native Portugal and later a commission chief, he had once upon a time been a radical like Mr Cohn-Bendit, a Maoist even, a youthful indiscretion Mr Lamberts reminded him of.
The mention of his far-left past and his conservative present riled the president.
"My party belongs to the European People's Party, so I could be considered centre right, but I am not a conservative," he insisted. "Not that it's a crime to be a conservative, but I'm not ...I'm a reformist of the centre."
"In my youth, perhaps I was an extremist of the other side, but you have to remember that at the time of the [Portuguese] dictatorship, one had two choices - one was either with the fascists or one was a Communist."
To which Mr Cohn-Bendit cheekily interjected, "There was Trotskyism as well," referring to the flavour of radicalism that was simultaneously anti-Stalinist and anti-Capitalist.
Throwing the kitchen sink
The two sides argued over agriculture, genetically modified organisms, the rights of minority languages, Europe's participation in "torture flights" during the War on Terror, human rights and trade agreements with developing nations. Indeed, the hearing covered almost every possible policy topic currently hitting the headlines.
Mr Barroso pointedly reminded the crowd of his abiding opposition to Guantanamo Bay, his repeated requests that Russian President Vladimir Putin find the killers of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and his defence of freedom of speech during the row over the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons. He added that there will be a dedicated human rights commissioner in the next commission.
On the subject of Irish commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, who in the run-up to the first Irish referendum said he had not personally read the treaty, the commission president drew laughter by saying the McCreevy statement was "not helpful."
'In my memoirs I will reveal all'
"I know it's not polite, but one last question: Do you believe that you were mistaken about the intervention in Iraq?" asked Mr Cohn-Bendit right at the end of the discussion, as the Portuguese politician was collecting his papers and getting ready to leave, in a refernce to his support for the war when at the head of the Iberian country - a position that has vexed the anti-militarist Green parties ever since.
"It is nothing to do with the commission, this was before I became president," he began sharply, but then softened: "But it is indeed an important question. At the time, Europe was very divided."
"I went to the Portuguese parliament four times. I said: 'I am against the war. But in the case that there is a war, among our democratic allies and the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, we cannot remain neutral, we have to politically support our ally'."
"That said, it was an extremely difficult decision ...perhaps the most difficult decision I have ever taken in my life."
The commission president tantalised his audience, suggesting there are some secrets about the days leading up to the war he wants to be known and that at one point he will tell all.
"One day - not right now, because I am still too young - I will write my memoirs. But one day I will write about certain things that now it is too soon to reveal."