Pope steps in for his friend Buttiglione

The Pope intervened yesterday in the EU's institutional impasse caused by MEPs' opposition to his close friend and confidant Rocco Buttiglione, an outspoken critic of gay and women's rights, as the new justice commissioner.

A day after José Manuel Barroso, the incoming commission president, staved off a defeat by MEPs by withdrawing his entire team, Pope John Paul called for a resolution of the crisis by "reciprocal respect in a spirit of goodwill".

His intervention, at an audience with Romano Prodi, the outgoing president now acting in a caretaker capacity, came as senior Christian Democrat sources indicated that Mr Buttiglione and "three or four" other nominees would have to go to win the parliament's broad backing for the Barroso team.

Mr Barroso, who began discussing a reshuffle with EU leaders in Rome last night, on the eve of today's ceremonial signing on the Capitoline Hill of the new constitutional treaty, admitted in a series of radio interviews that "several changes" might have to take place, "well less than eight or 10".

As Tony Blair and other EU leaders tried to resolve the crisis in talks in Rome last night, senior MEPs suggested that it might take until Christmas to resolve the crisis.

The Christian Democrats are said to be gunning for Neelie Kroes, a Dutch liberal chosen as competition commissioner, because they blame the 88 Liberal MEPs for the prospective vote against the team which forced Mr Barroso to back down.

Ms Kroes is already opposed by Socialists, Greens and other leftwingers on the grounds that her extensive business links constitute a conflict of interests.

She dropped her business interests on September 1 and promised not to return to corporate life when her five-year tenure ends in 2009.

With every sign of revengeful political leaders seeking tit-for-tat withdrawals of nominated commissioners after this week's wheeler-dealing in Strasbourg, the Hungarian socialist Laszlo Kovacs (energy), the Danish liberal Mariann Fischer Boel (agriculture), the Latvian Ingrida Udre (taxation), and the Greek Stavros Dimas (environment) are all seen as vulnerable.

The Pope told Mr Prodi, who plans to lead the Italian left against the re-election of Silvio Berlusconi's government next year, that the EU was wrong to leave Europe's centuries-old Christian heritage out of its new constitution.

Mr Buttiglione, who founded the ultra-conservative Communione e Liberazione group in 1968 to campaign against the secularisation of Italian and European society, fought to get a mention of Christianity in the constitution when he sat as minister for Europe on the EU convention drawing up the treaty.

In the face of evidence that most MEPs are determined to hold on to a vision of the EU as a secular entity, Mr Berlusconi, another conservative Catholic, clung to Mr Buttiglione as Italy's nominee.

Mr Berlusconi, who presides over today's ceremonies in the room where the EU's founding treaty was signed in 1957, said his friend had been chosen by "consensus and appreciation".

He is under pressure to nominate Franco Frattini, his foreign minister, or retain Mario Monti, the outgoing competition commissioner.

Mr Barroso's dilemma is heightened by the reluctance of government leaders to withdraw their nominees, prompting some Christian Democrats to suggest that there will be a minimal reshuffle in which two lose their posts and three or four otherschange places.

But parliamentary leaders said he would not win over enough MEPs and could simply prolong the crisis.

Gary Titley, the Labour leader, urged Mr Barroso to present his new team at next month's plenary session of the parliament.