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International -- European Business
Commentary: Romano Prodi: Europe's First Prime Minister? (int'l edition)
When Italy's Romano Prodi was designated last April as President of the European Commission, he had a strong mandate to push through radical changes in the vast, bureaucratic Brussels institution, which acts as the quasi-government of Europe. After all, the previous Commission, under Luxembourg's Jacques Santer, had resigned in disgrace en masse, accused of wobbly leadership and deep-rooted corruption. Prodi, a longtime senior manager in state industry and a former Prime Minister, was seen as someone who at least could put an honest face on a discredited body.BOLD AGENDA. The mild-mannered economist is taking that mandate and running with it. He is, in fact, looking like the first-ever Prime Minister of Europe. Even though he and his 19 new commissioners will only now get down to work after winning approval by the European Parliament on Sept. 15, Prodi has already shown that he means business. He has had more of a say than any of his predecessors in choosing his commissioners, from Britain's savvy Chris Patten to France's Pascal Lamy, the EC's new point man on trade. He has also retained the power to fire them and has made it clear that appointments within the 20,000-strong Commission will be made on the basis of skills rather than national flag. And most important, Prodi has outlined a bold agenda to cut growth-stifling state aid, trim Europe's high taxes, strike market-opening trade agreements, and take a leadership role in trouble spots like the Balkans.
Crucially, the EC now has a leader who knows how to communicate. This is vital for an institution widely seen as removed from the daily lives of Europeans--one reason why millions of them didn't even bother to vote during the European Parliament elections last July. Prodi recently took the first steps to centralize the EC's diffused, often cacophonous public information units, bringing them under his office's direct control. "I want to bring Europe out from behind closed doors and into the light of public scrutiny," he told the European Parliament in mid-September.
Prodi has also used his diplomatic skills to defuse the explosive deterioration in relations between the Brussels-based Commission and the Parliament. And as a respected former head of government, Prodi can speak as an equal with Europe's political leaders. Previous Commission Presidents Jacques Delors and Jacques Santer couldn't claim that.
Despite the new buzz in Brussels, Prodi still has to convince doubters that he is changing substance, not just style. The new Prodi Commission will soon have to start coming up with real results on thorny issues ranging from genetically modified food to airline alliances and trade disputes. Instead of harmonizing already high taxes upward, Prodi must carry through on promises to bring them down throughout the Continent, particularly job-killing levies on labor. Most pressing will be dampening the simmering fire in the Balkans, which Prodi hopes to do by holding out the prospect of EC membership to countries in the region.WORST IS OVER. Prodi has a lot more going for him than meets the eye. For one, the economic recovery under way across the Continent (page 26) is boosting confidence throughout Europe. The heavy lifting involved in pushing through monetary union is now finished, and the worst of the deflationary crisis seems at last to be over. That will certainly make it easier for Prodi to tackle structural reforms, such as cutting agricultural subsidies, which must be achieved to give a good foundation to the incipient recovery.
With recent pronouncements on issues like the Balkans and European defense, Prodi seems even more intent on expanding his authority. Past EC presidents who tried this, such as Jacques Delors, were firmly put in their place by national leaders. Europe's 15 elected prime ministers are largely backing Prodi--for now. One reason is that leaders such as former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and France's late Francois Mitterrand, who considered the construction of the European Union their personal preserve, are gone from the scene. In their place is a new, younger, and more pragmatic generation of politicians who mostly seek to work together on the practical realities of the day. Leaders such as Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroder may be willing to cede Prodi some power in the interests of a stronger Europe. Now, the professor from Bologna must use his new authority.By John Rossant