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Defiant MEPs on course to vote out new Commission

By Stephen Castle in Strasbourg

27 October 2004

The new European Commission was facing a humiliating rejection by MEPs last night, amid frantic last-minute efforts to stave off a constitutional crisis over Italy's embattled nominee, Rocco Buttiglione.

Tony Blair was among those lobbying MEPs to back away from a confrontation over Mr Buttiglione, as the key players held a hectic series of meetings ahead of a crunch vote on the entire team of commissioners.

A "no" would prevent the new Commission, led by Jose Manuel Barroso, from taking office, plunging the EU into its deepest crisis since 1999 when the entire team lead by Jacques Santer quit. Many Euro-MPs said last night the result was too close to predict with the 88 Liberal Democrat MEPs in a pivotal position. Graham Watson, their leader, said: "It seems to me that the Commission will be defeated unless something happens overnight. I find it incredible that Buttiglione has not offered to withdraw."

After meeting Mr Barroso, 50 of the Liberal Democrat MEPs indicated they would vote against him, with 23 in favour and five abstaining. Mr Barroso, who has so far resisted pressure to move Mr Buttiglione from the justice and home affairs portfolio, spoke yesterday to the Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi.

One theory was that today's vote could be delayed to allow the government in Rome to agree to move Mr Buttiglione, a devout Roman Catholic who described homosexuality as "a sin" and slighted unmarried mothers and working wives. Amid a febrile atmosphere in Strasbourg, one rumour surfaced that Mr Buttiglione was on the verge of resigning though that was denied in Rome.

Mr Barroso knows that he will at best scrape through with a small majority, something that will sap his authority. Some EU governments, however, do not want to set a precedent by giving in to MEPs. The timing of today's vote to confirm the Commission is acutely embarrassing, two days before all 25 EU heads of government meet in Rome to sign a new European constitution. Confirmation hearings in the European Parliament exposed several commissioners-designate as poor performers but most of the ire has focused on Mr Buttiglione, who would have some responsibility for civil liberties.

MEPs, who do not have the power to reject individuals, can veto the entire Commission. Officials in the 200-strong socialist group of MEPs, which, with the Greens, intends to vote against the Commission, said they have enough votes to prevent Mr Barroso's team taking office. But Gary Titley, leader of the 19 British MEPs who are part of the group, said Mr Barroso might have enough votes to squeeze through.

Mr Titley, who said that he had spoken to Mr Blair, said: "We have not committed ourselves. Mr Barroso has not yet given us a reason for supporting the Commission but nobody wants it to go down."

Peter Mandelson, Britain's commissioner-designate, addressed Labour MEPs but all but three said they would vote "no". As it emerged that officials in No 10 called Labour MEPs to demand they back the Commission, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the co-leader of the Greens, said: "Our British colleagues are getting fed up with phone calls from Downing Street."

Mr Barroso offered minor concessions, promising an anti-discrimination directive, and saying he opposed moves for the EU to set up refugee camps in north Africa. But he warned MEPs: "You share with me the knowledge of the populist threat, of all those that want to weaken Europe and want to question the credibility of our institutions. We should not give them fresh ammunition."