Politics: With a New European Commission President Who Is Keen to Show He Is No One's Poodle, Can Tony Blair Still Secure an Advantageous Deal for Britain in Brussels?

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), August 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Politics: With a New European Commission President Who Is Keen to Show He Is No One's Poodle, Can Tony Blair Still Secure an Advantageous Deal for Britain in Brussels?


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


Old Europe is dead. Long live ... what exactly? The response from Tony Blair to the composition of the new European Commission was jubilant. The Prime Minister, having swatted away the Labour Party's concerns about Peter Mandelson's fitness for high office, saw his favourite son appointed to one of the top jobs in Brussels: trade. But the distribution of the other portfolios was even more striking, notably the preferential treatment given to the likes of the Irish, Dutch and Poles, and the rebuff to President Chirac in handing his man the inconsequential brief of transport.

Downing Street has invested heavily in the man responsible for these changes, the new European Commission president, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. He represents much of what Blair would like Europe to be. A former Maoist, his political journey ended with the Social Democrats on the centre right (pace new Labour). As prime minister of Portugal, Barroso made himself unpopular by pushing through an austerity programme to conform to the eurozone's Stability and Growth Pact--strictures his French and German counterparts sought to flout. He is as staunch an Atlanticist as he is a free-marketeer and hosted the eve-of-war Azores summit in March 2003 for Blair, President Bush and the then Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar.

Those are the bald facts, but European Commission presidents have a habit of not conforming to the expectations of UK governments. Jacques Delors became the scourge of Eurosceptics for being too strong and leading the EU in its most ambitious integrationist phase in the early 1990s. Jacques Santer, seen as a better bet than the more federalist Belgian choice, was vilified for being too weak and presiding over corruption scandals that led to the European Commission's mass resignation in 1999. Romano Prodi was hailed in London as a vigorous successor--but he also did not turn out that way.

Barroso and his new 25-strong team formally take over in November, when the European Commission moves back into its grand Berlaymont headquarters after 13 years of asbestos clearing. The honeymoon may not last long. Having shown Chirac the independence he is capable of, Barroso may deliver a similar message to Blair. There are several potential opportunities for discord. When the new EU budget is negotiated in the coming months, Barroso will be under pressure from other countries to support proposals to scrap the UK's anachronistic 20-year-old budget rebate, worth [pounds sterling]2bn annually. …

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