New chief hopes to energize EU

Italy's Romano Prodi will be sworn in today as chief of the beleaguered

Europe gets a new government today.

At least, that is the way Romano Prodi, the activist president of the new European Commission, would like to see it, as he and his 19 fellow members of the European Union's (EU) executive body are sworn in.

The former Italian prime minister is diving energetically into his job with grand ambitions to overhaul and invigorate the 15-member EU during his five- year tenure. And he makes no bones about his vision that his commission might one day become a real European government.

Urging "radical and groundbreaking" reforms in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday, he outlined his plans for a more open and dynamic European Union, doubling in size over the next quarter century and appealing to the loyalties that citizens currently reserve for their own countries.

That is a tall order.

The last commission resigned en masse last March, under pressure from the Parliament, in the wake of an independent report that found commissioners responsible for nepotism, corruption and widespread mismanagement of public monies.

"Prodi's job is a bit like President Ford's after Nixon," says Bernhard May, an analyst at the Berlin-based German Foreign Policy Society. "He has to say, OK something went wrong, but we have to move forward."

The European Parliament's approval of the new commission on Wednesday, and its formal assumption of office today, put an end to six months of "institutional trauma," as European Parliament member Nick Clegg put it. The old commission had stayed on in a caretaker mode, but took no initiatives, and the EU was in a state of purposeless drift.

The first five years of the next millennium offer no shortages of challenges. For a start, 11 central and eastern European countries - from Lithuania to Slovenia - are queuing up to join the EU, posing serious problems to an organization anxious to keep some kind of homogeneity among its members.

The candidate countries must engage in lengthy and complex negotiations with EU headquarters in Brussels as they seek to bring their economies and political cultures into line with western European standards. At the current pace, it is quite possible that none of them would qualify for EU membership for another five years or more.

Mr. Prodi has little patience for this. Declaring that "a political vision, not a technocratic one" must guide EU enlargement, he is pressing member governments to set firm target dates for new members to join.

Adding new members will mean, though, that EU institutions will have to be streamlined, to prevent the group from becoming unmanageable. An intergovernmental conference is already planned for next year to consider how voting rights should be distributed, and how much weight smaller countries will have.

But Prodi says he wants far more on the conference agenda to boost the role of his commission and the Parliament, at the expense of national governments.

Those governments chose Prodi because they wanted an activist and strong commission, after experiencing the difficulties of operating with a weak commission during the Kosovo war. But "the question remains as to whether national governments will give Prodi the support he needs," says Dr. May, if they see their powers being eroded.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Prodi faces, however, is to stir up some enthusiasm among the European public for what the European Union does, and to earn some credibility. "This is a fundamental problem, and one of the most intractable," worries Ben Hall of London's Centre for European Reform, a think tank close to the government of Tony Blair.

The EU is seen as a distant, secretive, wasteful bureaucracy by many Europeans, who blame Brussels for much of what goes wrong in their lives. The turnout at last June's European Parliament elections was 43 per cent, the lowest ever.

The Parliament, however, has new powers under a new treaty, and Prodi has promised glasnost and closer relations between the commission and the people's elected representatives. He is proposing steps to increase food safety, in the wake of numerous scandals such as "mad cow" disease, and has also suggested that the EU should combat endemic delays at European airports.

Prodi has promised to come up with a policy agenda by next January. "Many people are hoping that he will be able to generate some enthusiasm and an optimistic outlook that will create political movement," says May. "What we need is leadership."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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