In late June, when Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Du- rão Barroso was chosen by the political leaders of the European Union's 25 member-states as the European Commission's next president, longtime Europe watchers reacted with a mixture of bafflement and dismay. Barroso was on virtually no one's list of potential candidates. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had lobbied hard for Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, to take over the most important institutional job in the EU. Britain and other states were pushing for Danish center-right leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen or for Spain's Javier Solana. As a deadlock loomed, leaders settled on dark horse Barroso. "José Manuel Durão Barroso Who?" was how one radio dispatch put it.
But the 48-year-old former lawyer is winning over many skeptics. By moving quickly to form his commission, he deflected mounting political pressure from large EU states to get favored posts. And his decision to hand over four key commissionerships -- competition, trade, internal market, and monetary affairs -- to free-market candidates from Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Spain is winning plaudits. "This puts free-market reformers at the center of gravity," says Julian Lindley-French, course director at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
It also marks the end of Franco-German domination of the EC decision-making apparatus. Barroso rejected strong pressure from Berlin to name a supercommissioner in charge of economic affairs -- with the job going, naturally, to a German bureaucrat, Günter Verheugen. And despite behind-the-scenes strong-arming to have 67-year-old Chirac associate Jacques Barrot succeed competition chief Mario Monti, the job went to Neelie Kroes, a business-friendly Dutch economist and former transport minister. Barrot, who speaks no English and had no experience in international positions, had to settle for the EC's transport portfolio. "This is an unprecedented humiliation for French diplomacy," is how François Bayrou, a prominent French parliamentarian, puts it.
Barroso, however, cannot afford to burn his bridges to the French and Germans. He will need all the support he can get for what are likely to be his two biggest political battles over the next year. One is his determination to keep opening up Europe's protected service industries. The second task is to set the EC'S 2007-13 budget plans. Last December the six biggest net contributors published a joint letter calling for a future cap of the EC budget at just 1% of Europe's gross domestic product. Both outgoing EC President Romano Prodi and Barroso think the proposal insufficient for new efforts, from anti-terrorism to increased research and development expenditures.
Barroso's no-nonsense determination to boost Europe's lackluster economic performance looks smart. Prodi lost much credibility by badly communicating policies, while his rhetoric about Europe as a superpower was undercut by internal conflicts over the Iraq war, NATO, and relations with the U.S. "Barroso has proven competence and clear-headedness -- and competence is always better than rhetoric," says Larry Siedentop, a specialist on European political affairs at Oxford University. Barroso's honeymoon will not last forever, but he is getting off to a surprisingly good start.
By John Rossant in Paris
Edited by Christopher Power