EU Chief Withdraws Commission

STRASBOURG, France -- The incoming head of the European Commission withdrew his proposed EU executive on Wednesday to avoid a humiliating European Parliament defeat, plunging the bloc into an unprecedented political crisis.

"I have come to the conclusion that if a vote is taken today, the outcome will not be positive for EU institutions or for the European project," Jose Manuel Barroso told a packed assembly just one hour before the investiture vote was due.

"In these circumstances, I have decided not to submit the new European Commission for your approval today," he said. "I need more time to look at this issue."

Barroso's team faced defeat because he refused to replace his nominated justice and security chief, Rocco Buttiglione, who outraged many lawmakers with his conservative Roman Catholic views on homosexuality and marriage.

The former Portuguese prime minister told lawmakers he would consult EU leaders and parliament before putting forward new proposals "in the next few weeks."

The delay means the outgoing commission led by Romano Prodi of Italy remains in office "as long as necessary," the EU's Dutch presidency told parliament.

Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen said Prodi had agreed to stay on at the request of Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende "to ensure institutional continuity."

Barroso's dramatic retreat plunged the EU into political uncertainty two days before its leaders are due to sign the bloc's first constitution in Rome.

It could transform Friday's glittering signing ceremony, meant to launch the public campaign for ratification in the 25 EU member states, into a crisis summit on the standoff between the bloc's main institutions, diplomats said.

Parliament President Josep Borrell said the delay took the EU into "virgin territory," and the legal position was unclear.

It was not immediately clear whether Barroso would try to reshuffle his existing 25-member team, one appointed by each member state, or ask for replacements for Buttiglione and perhaps other nominees criticized by parliament.

Outgoing commission Vice President Neil Kinnock told reporters he expected Buttiglione would resign, but a spokesman for the Italian denied reports he had withdrawn.

Barroso had made no secret of his wish to keep outgoing Italian Competition Commissioner Mario Monti, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided otherwise in July.

Leaders of the 268-member conservative European People's Party, Barroso's staunchest supporters, said they realized they did not have sufficient backing from other groups to deliver even a tiny majority in the 731-seat assembly on Wednesday.

Aides to Barroso said he had risked losing the EPP's vital support if he had made Buttiglione resign or take another job.

Italian newspapers privy to private briefings in Rome reported that Berlusconi had intervened on Tuesday to urge Buttiglione, his European affairs minister, to "make a noble gesture" and withdraw to save Barroso's team.

"You risk bringing down the whole commission. ... You can imagine what the consequences would be for Europe and Italy," the newspaper La Stampa quoted Berlusconi as telling Buttiglione.