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Europe

Barroso Starts Tough Job of Building Commission

Just days after his appointment as the EU's top politician, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has begun assembling his team. But unlike other governments, he doesn't have the luxury of picking his own.

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Jose Manuel Barroso is building his political Legos in Brussels

As outgoing European Commission President Romano Prodi whiles his summer days away along the shores of Greece, his succesor is spending the summer assembling his new team, which is to be confirmed by the European Parliament in September and will begin its term on Nov. 1. But the former Portuguese prime minister, elected by parliament earlier this month, has major limitations in how he can structure his Commission. Under EU procedures Barrosa can determine what portfolio any given commissioner will receive, but national capitals determine who will represent their countries on the Commission.

Only five out of the current 20 commissioners will remain in the European executive office come November. They include Viviane Reding of Luxembourg, Margot Wallström of Sweden, France's Jaques Barrot and possibly Joaquin Almunia of Spain -- both of whom have only served in Brussels for the past few months -- as well as Germany's Günter Verheugen.

Super-commissioner Verheugen?

Guenter Verheugen EU Erweiterungs Kommissar

Günter Verheugen

Observers believe that because of Verheugen's (photo) experience as Commissioner for Enlargement, he will, by default, become a sort of "super-commissioner." Compared to the other candidates, he's one of the few among the commissioners nominated by the member states who carries considerable political clout. Nevertheless, Barroso has rejected the proposals to create a super-commissioner label or any other tiered system of commissioners.

But German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has expressed his desire for Verheugen to take over the Commission's economics portfolio as well as responsibility for implementation of the so-called Lisbon Agenda, which seeks to make the EU the most industrially, technologically and economically dynamic group of nations in the world by 2010. So far the effort has produced meager results. Under Schröder's vision, Verheugen would breathe new life into the Lisbon plan and coordinate his activities with the other commissioners.

Indeed, most of the large member states are pushing for a more powerful economics portfolio. Currently the competencies are divided among four different commissioners who manage competition policy, the internal market, trade and industrial policy.

Due to domestic policy concerns, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has recalled Mario Monti, who has had a highly successful stint as competition commissioner, and is instead sending Rocco Buttiglione. The experienced politician is a member of the Italian coalition government's junior partner, the Democratic Union of the Center, which has lately been on a confrontation course with Berlusconi.

France's Jacques Barrot is also jockeying for an economics-related Commission post at the behest of his mentor, President Jacques Chirac.

Peter Mandelson Porträtfoto

Peter Mandelson has been forced to resign from Tony Blair's cabinet in two separate incidences. Now he's going to represent Britain in Brussels.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair is sending his scandal-plagued two-time cabinet member Peter Mandelson (photo) to Brussels to represent the United Kingdom on the Commission. Mandelson is considered a close confidante of Blair, and he has been selected with the hope that he can increase euroskeptical Brits' interest in Brussels in time for the country's planned referendum on the EU constitution.

The big unknowns

The biggest wildcards on the new Commission are the ten commissioners from the new EU member states. They've already been shadowing the Commission since earlier this year without a portfolio, but they haven't made much of a dent in public. Nonetheless, observers in Brussels believe Poland's Danuta Hübner will likely be given one of the more important Commission posts.

Expanding the Commission

Out of the current 19 Commission departments, Barroso will now be responsible for creating 24 so that all of the commissioners of the member states will have authority over at least one policy area. But only 12 of those 24 positions will likely carry much weight -- meaning that the smaller member states will likely be given less meaningful competencies in the EU executive, which will hold office through 2009.

As part of their accession negotiations, the smaller states came to an agreement that the Commission should be comprised of one commissioner from each member state, despite that fact that the body, at least in theory, represents EU treaties in an independent, supranational manner without representing the interests of individual countries.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner

One of Barroso's stated goals is to have at least eight women on his team. If Austria decides to send its current foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (photo), to Brussels, he may come close to that goal. Ferrero-Walder recently lost the presidential election and with her on the Commission, the number of woman would climb to seven.

Opportunity in weakness

The relatively weak profile of most of the future EU commissioners could actually represent an opportunity for Barroso, who himself wasn't even the first choice for the post he now holds. It's possible he could excell as a stronger president than those seen on recent Commissions. His predecessor, Prodi, gave his commissioners a long leash and considerable room to develop their political independence. But this also came at a cost, since most viewed Prodi as a weak Commission president.

Barroso plans to complete his jigsaw puzzle of people and competencies by the end of August, when Brussels' core of Eurocrats returns from summer vacation. Between now and then, he'll be working the speed dial button to national capitals and he'll be holding interviews with the commissioners to determine who gets what position. In the worst-case scenario, Barroso has said, he will take advantage of his ability to reject or fire candidates with insufficient experience -- a right that was first cemented in the recently ratified Treaty of Nice.

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