Sunday, 1 August 1999


New Times, August 1999

It is going to take a lot of work to restore the credibility of the European Commission after the scandal that led to the resignation of all 20 commissioners in March, but Romano Prodi, its new president, appears undaunted by the challenge.

He has used the four months since he was nominated by EU heads of government to put together a radical plan for strengthening and reforming the Commission, building on changes introduced in the Amsterdam treaty. All the signs are that – if the European Parliament approves his commissioners in the autumn – he has a good chance of overseeing the rehabilitation of a discredited institution.

Prodi wants a commission that 'will have the powers, the political awareness and the will to work as a team, to improve efficiency and transparency and to express a strong political programme'. In line with this, the central thrust of his reform programme is to make the presidency more powerful and the Commission much more like a cabinet government.
Before announcing his new team of 19 commissioners last month, he made a point of emphasising that he would not hesitate to use his powers to hire and fire – if necessary vetoing national governments' choices of commissioners. The new commissioners had to agree in writing that they accepted his right to dismiss them at will.

Prodi has created substantial new roles for his two vice-presidents and taken away their departmental responsibilities. The UK's Neil Kinnock will take charge of Commission reform, combating fraud, the budget and personnel; and Spain's Loyola de Palacio will deal with relations with the European Parliament and institutional reform. The agriculture and fisheries departments will be merged, as will those for justice and home affairs.

Prodi is also insisting that each commissioner's cabinet of advisers – hitherto generally treated as a private office and staffed by political allies from the commissioner's own country – become expert supranational bodies that 'serve as an instrument supporting the policies developed by the president and the commissioners'.

Finally, Prodi is moving most commissioners and their civil servants out of the central Brussels Breydel building, which will become the home of the presidency, the legal service and the head of the EU bureaucracy and will be run like the British cabinet office.

The main problem Prodi faces is the European Parliament, which has the power to reject the Commission – and might just do so. The June European election resulted in a change in the balance of MEPs, with the centre-right gaining at the expense of the centre-left. But 10 of Prodi's 19 commissioners are socialists, and the centre-right is not pleased.

There is also grumbling in the parliament about the reappointment of four of the members of the commission that fell in March – Kinnock, Italy's Mario Monti, Finland's Erkki Liikanen and Austria's Franz Fischler. None of them was implicated in the corruption scandals, but many MEPs insist that there should have been a clean sweep of commissioners as the parliament demanded.