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New EU chief Barroso: ex-Maoist turned pragmatist

Jose Manuel Barroso, who finally takes office Monday as head of the European Commission, is a former student Maoist turned economically liberal pragmatist, who describes himself as a "bridge-builder."

These conciliatory skills were tested to the full by the standoff with EU lawmakers of the last month -- and may prove useful in what could be a particularly challenging five years at the helm of the still-expanding EU.

The 48-year-old former lawyer, who sided with the pro-US camp in last year's Iraq war, has impressed many in Brussels since being chosen in June to succeed Romano Prodi as head of the EU's executive arm.

His rapid selection on his new commission team in July seemed typical of his no-nonsense, get-down-to-business approach, while his polyglot linguistic command has been a relief in Brussels after Prodi's rambling style.

True, the positive impression was dented somewhat by his clear misjudgment in September and October of the strength of EU lawmakers to key members of his new team.

But again, once the problem was identified he pragmatically "stopped the clock," went away and reshuffled his team, and came back three weeks later to secure a comfortable majority in the European Parliament last week.

His arrival on the EU stage follows a rapid political rise in his homeland.

According to his official biography, the young Barroso first became actively involved in politics during the iron-fisted dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, which ended in a bloodless revolution in 1974.

Horrified after seeing one of his favourite teachers beaten up by Salazar's security police, Barroso plunged into radical student politics, becoming for a time a member of an extremist Maoist group.

But he was a top student in his law class and began an academic career after graduating. At university, he met a literature student named Margarida Sousa Uva, who became his wife five years later. They have three sons.

One of the youngest members of a Portuguese government -- he took a top interior ministry post at the age of 29 -- in 1991 he mediated peace talks in Angola, Portugal's former African colony, which led to a temporary ceasefire between rebel soldiers and the government.

After becoming leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in 1999 Barroso repeatedly said in interviews: "I know I will be prime minister, I just don't know when."

He did not wait long. In April 2002 Barroso won the early legislative elections which followed the resignation of Socialist prime minister Antonio Guterres, and acceded to the top job in Lisbon.

In that job Barroso -- who dropped one of his surnames, Durao, which loosely translated means "tough guy" after he moved to Brussels -- was frequently accused of intransigence by left-wing opposition parties.

He used the slim majority which his centre-right coalition government enjoyed in parliament to push through a number of unpopular economic reforms which he said were needed to spur along Portugal's sluggish economy.

He also went against public opinion and backed the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, even hosting a summit with the United States, Britain and Spain on the eve of the invasion, and sent 120 Portuguese police officers to serve in Iraq.

But at the same time Barroso wove a web of contacts with other EU governments, particularly among the new member states.

It is that bridge-building, reaching out to all sides, which will be crucial in the coming years as the EU's political dynamics evolve with the new arrivals, and with further waves of expansion to come.

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