European Commission: Power Play? the Buttiglione Affair Highlights a Political Imbalance

By Underhill, William | Newsweek International, November 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

European Commission: Power Play? the Buttiglione Affair Highlights a Political Imbalance


Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Byline: William Underhill (With Marie Valla in London)

It was a battle waiting for a battlefield. In one camp: the European Commission, the widely distrusted executive that steers the European Union. In the other: the European Parliament, elected champion of the Union's 450 million citizens, eager to assert the prerogatives of a derided institution. Last week provided the opportunity. Representatives of the newly enlarged Union were facing a new Commission at the start of its new term. What better time to sort out seniority in the new Europe?

In the end, it was no contest. Faced with the assembly's ire, Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso backed down over his choice of Rocco Buttiglione for the Justice portfolio. The Italian's offense was glaring: a most un-P.C. denunciation of homosexuality as a "sin," coupled with his hard-line stance on single mothers--at a time when the EU is pushing a liberal line on human rights, not to mention new European initiatives on gay marriage. But make no mistake: had it not been Buttiglione, it would have been someone--or something--else. Barroso has been forced to rethink his entire team to meet the parliamentarians' objections. Legislators like Graham Watson, leader of the Parliament's liberal faction, are celebrating victory both over the Commission and the national governments that nominate its members. "The voice of democracy has made itself heard in every national capital and beyond!" he exults.

Well, maybe. Watson's sentiments are understandable but not wholly convincing. Decision making in Brussels is a slippery affair. Says Frank Vibert of the European Policy Forum, a London think tank: "There is still institutional confusion over who does what." What's clear, as some parliamentarians concede, is that it's no equal partnership, and the Strasbourg outcome won't change the fundamentals. This is a Parliament that wields only limited power over EU spending and still can't propose its own legislation; it can only amend measures put forward by the Commission. …

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