Incoming EU Commission chief Jose Barroso on Wednesday withdrew his current executive team and announced he will reshuffle it to avoid a veto threatening to plunge the EU into crisis.
Barroso now needs to start all over
News reports on Wednesday morning said that Barroso was asking parliamentarians to postpone the vote in order to try and come to a solution. Other reports said that Barroso was going to withdraw the proposed list of commissioners when he addresses parliamentarians before noon.
In what would amount to an unprecedented institutional crisis, a majority of European Parliament members (MEPs) seem set to veto Barroso's new team because of his refusal to replace Rocco Buttiglione, a former Italian minister, as justice commissioner.
Nearly all the 200 Socialists in the 732-seat legislature and at least 50 Liberals are to vote against the Barroso team in Wednesday's noon vote, along with smaller left-wing and
euroskeptic groups, MEPs said.
Barroso, facing a knife-edge vote in the European Parliament which looked increasingly likely to go against him, made the announcement in parliament after consulting with key party leaders.
While parliamentarians applauded the decision, they immediately began a heated discussion to come to terms with what is an unprecedented situation for the European Union.
Barroso told party leaders that he planned to go on a tour of European capitals to come up with a modified commission, which he would present to parliamentarians within a few weeks.
"That's what he said to the presidents of the groups," Marielle de Sarnez told AFP, referring to the heads of the three main political groupings in the EU assembly.
The fast-moving developments came after a series of meetings late Tuesday failed to overcome the deadlock.
The veto threat was in response to Barroso's insistence on keeping Rocco Buttiglione as his pick for the sensitive EU justice brief, despite a storm sparked by the Italian's comments on gays and women.
As of late Tuesday, nearly all 200 Socialists in the 732-seat legislature and at least 50 Liberals were said to be preparing to vote against the Barroso team, along with smaller left-wing and euroskeptic groups.
"There's no majority in parliament supporting Barroso today," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit (photo), the leader of the Greens group. He added that the rejection was not politically motivated but rather a sign that parliamentarians wanted to see competent commissioners come to Brussels.
"There are six masons in the commission who have been asked to build planes," Cohn-Bendit told German public television.
In sometimes heated exchanges with MEPs during a round of meetings Tuesday, Barroso had earlier pleaded that with EU leaders preparing to sign the bloc's historic constitution in Rome Friday, now was not the time for institutional civil war.
Buttiglione (photo), a conservative Catholic who would nominally take charge of EU civil liberties, has infuriated many MEPs by arguing that homosexuality is a "sin" and that women should stay at home to make babies.
The commission's Portuguese president-designate reiterated an offer to MEPs to reassign some of Buttiglione's more sensitive duties, such as anti-discrimination policy, to a four-member team of commissioners.
But the offer fell on deaf ears among Socialists and others, who argued that nothing short of Buttiglione's departure to a less high-profile job, or his outright resignation, would suffice.
Calls for Barroso's resignation
"It seems to me that the commission will be defeated (Wednesday) unless something happens in the meantime," Liberal leader Graham Watson said. "I find it incredible that Mr. Buttiglione has not taken the consequences of this and offered his resignation and his withdrawal."
Meanwhile Italian newspaper reports said that Buttiglione had refused a request from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to withdraw his candidacy, to head off the crisis.
"Berlusconi to Buttiglione: give up," the daily La Stampa headlined, saying that Buttiglione had apparently dug in his heels, preferring to await the parliamentary vote.
The Corriere della Sera reported that Berlusconi telephoned Buttiglione, and while he did not specifically call on the former Italian minister to withdraw his candidacy he said he should make a "noble gesture" to alleviate the crisis.
But saying that it was too late to reach a last-minute compromise, Socialist leader Martin Schulz had rejected any postponement out of hand. Schulz added that Barroso had failed to make any concessions to parliamentarians in the last few weeks and therefore had to take "partial blame" for the situation.
Hans-Gert Pöttering, the leader of the conservative group in parliament, had cautioned his colleagues to reconsider rejecting the commission. He added that such a move would make it even harder to convince Europeans to support the new EU constitution, due to be signed by EU leaders in Rome on Friday.
The US is watching
Outgoing commission chief Romano Prodi has said he will stay on beyond Nov. 1 as a caretaker until the crisis is resolved. But EU treaties do not spell out how the bloc should proceed in that event.
What is certain is that the EU's image on the world stage will be tarnished yet again just as the 25-nation tries to recover from a year of bitter infighting over the new constitution and the US-led war in Iraq.
And with the United States preparing to elect a new president on Nov. 2, across the Atlantic, the world's most powerful trading bloc will be left all but rudderless.