Leading Article: Europe's leaders must not slacken the drive for reform

YESTERDAY, EUROPEAN leaders met Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, to talk about the war in Kosovo. Afterwards, they had dinner with Romano Prodi, the president elect of the European Commission, to discuss reform of Europe's institutions.

It is right that European leaders are tackling both these matters. Slobodan Milosevic, President of Yugoslavia, cannot be given the succour of seeing any divisions within the EU. But nor should European governments allow the Commission to keep drifting following the resignation of the Commission President Jacques Santer and the 19 other commissioners because of corruption scandals.

There are decisions to be made. Mr Prodi needs a team of commissioners to oversee the reform of the Commission. Following the scandals the European parliament has won the right to vet the candidates put forward by the member states. It should use this right to ensure that member states appoint commissioners who are ready to do the job at hand, and not those who take their posts as a reward for past domestic service.

The new candidates should not be appointed before the European elections in June. The next parliament will not feel bound by the decisions of its predecessor and the vetting will have to be done again. Not until early September will the new MEPs get going on the hearings.

There are three categories of existing commissioners. The first includes Edith Cresson, who has been named and shamed in the report on the Commission's failures. She could not be reappointed in any circumstances. The second category includes commissioners such as Sir Leon Brittan, who have not been specifically criticised and who have indicated that they do not want to work beyond the end of the year. The third category comprises those such as Neil Kinnock who want to serve for the next five-year term.

So Mr Prodi has a choice in September. Why should untainted commissioners such as Mr Kinnock be blamed for the malfeasance of others? Furthermore, as Sir Leon has argued, experienced people are needed during this period of the banana troubles and the war in Kosovo.

Mr Prodi should reject such arguments, however. The report that led to the mass resignation stressed that the Commission is a collective body and implicitly criticised all of the commissioners. By sacking all of them and having a new set starting in September, Mr Prodi would have a team that would be acceptable to both the member states and the parliament. This would enable the Commission to push ahead with such neglected tasks as appointing someone to bring together common foreign and security policy, as announced in the Amsterdam Treaty. If the EU is to rebut charges of being an economic lion but a military mouse, such an appointment is overdue.