European papers are all aflutter after the European Parliament—previously thought to be an ineffectual talk shop located in Strasbourg, France—blocked the approval of the new European Union executive body, the European Commission. Facing a resounding “no” in the legislature, José Manuel Barroso of Portugal, the incoming president of the commission, withdrew his entire proposed slate of commissioners.
While many editorialists are hailing “a victory for democracy,” others are saying that the European Union has once again been thrown into institutional crisis. (It is worth noting that the EU goes through an “institutional crisis” of some sort on a fairly regular basis.) In fact, it’s the opposite of an institutional crisis, says Germany’s Die Zeit, arguing that this is actually how European democracy is supposed to work and that this is “a step towards the much sought after democratisation and politicisation of [EU] institutions.” (Translation via EurActiv.)
Britain’s DailyTelegraph, meanwhile, called Barroso’s balk “an historic upset that profoundly alters the character of the European Union.” The Telegraph, which is firmly in the euro-skeptic camp of the British press, dubbed the proposed team of center-right, pro-free-market commissioners “the most ‘Anglo-Saxon’ style commission ever proposed.” It was scuttled, the paper says—indeed, “blackballed”—by the European Parliament’s aversion to a single commissioner, the Italian Rocco Buttiglione, who has close ties to the brash and outspoken Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as well as Pope John Paul II. Buttiglione, the proposed commissioner for “justice, freedom and security,” had raised the hackles of many members of European Parliament (MEPs) by calling homosexuality “a sin” and for his conservative Catholic views on marriage and motherhood.
The conflict is not simply between right and left, and between traditionalists and European secularists—although it is surely that. It also demonstrates the rift between a vision of European governance that sees the seat of power in national governments (who appoint the commissioners) and one that sees it in the directly elected European Parliament. Confused? The European Commission is “the engine room of the European Union,” and this is where most of the action takes place. Ultimate power, though, rests with the Council of Ministers (not to be confused with the European Council or the non-EU-related Council of Europe). The council, and to a lesser degree the commission, represents national governments of member states; the European Parliament, on the other hand, is supposed to represent the people of Europe. The commission and the council are constantly vying with the European Parliament for power, and this week’s events are seen as a victory for the latter. “After years of sliding down the slippery slope of oblivion, the European Parliament has finally done something worthy of its name. By putting its foot down to Barroso’s proposal, the Parliament has gained respect. This reinforces European democracy,” wrote Frankfurter Rundschau.(Translation via Deutche Welle radio.)
On a more personal level, many see the row as an extension of the conflict sparked by Berlusconi’s quip last year that the German MEP Martin Schulz, head of the Socialists in the European Parliament, would play a good Nazi concentration camp guard. Most Germans—and indeed, most Europeans—didn’t think that joke was very funny. (It, too, plunged the European Union into “institutional crisis.”) As one of its most vocal opponents, Schulz played in instrumental role in sinking Barroso’s proposed commission. Lending a hand was the head of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, best known to students of 20th century European history as the leader of the May 1968 student uprising in Paris.
It didn’t help that Buttiglione has a habit of making statements that make Berlusconi almost seem like a diplomat by comparison. In a remark covered widely in the Czech press, Buttiglione told Italy’s La Stampathat powers related to anti-discrimination were not in his hands but in those of the proposed commissioner for social policy, Vladimir Spidla of the Czech Republic. Buttiglione described Spidla, with apparent sarcasm, as “a tough ex-communist in whose hands the principles of freedom are guaranteed.” A former Czech prime minister, Spidla has never been a member of the Communist Party. Few people familiar with his political career would call the bespectacled former historian “tough,” either.
With so much pontificating about what it all means, few are hazarding many guesses about what will happen next. “The EU is now in new political territory,” says the BBC. The outgoing commission of Romano Prodi will stay on as a caretaker government, perhaps for as long as several weeks, until Barroso puts together a new set of names. Meanwhile, the European Union lurches toward its next institutional crisis.