Leading Article: The European public should elect their next President

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The Independent Culture
FOR ALL the Prime Minister's evident enjoyment of throwing himself into the European fray, he looks like a good horse-trader rather than a visionary. He is doing an effective job of putting himself in the middle of the action, using all the skills of media management that have served him so well in Britain. Taking full advantage of the Kohl-shaped hole in the heart of Europe, and the relative weakness of the new German government, Tony Blair has used his energy and freshness to take up a lot of space. Of all the European Union leaders, he gets the most media coverage in other countries.

His real leverage, however, is limited. Although he was quick to call for Jacques Santer to go the moment the report detailing corruption, nepotism and incompetence was published, he was careful not to be too specific in the reforms he demanded. He did insist that "we cannot have the next president appointed in the same way as the last". It sounded like a rallying call to end the system of horse-trading between the leaders of member states. But all he meant was that he and his fellow leaders should appoint the new president of the European Commission "on merit" and not, as Mr Santer was, as the candidate who caused least offence.

Mr Blair was pretty fast on to the Romano Prodi bandwagon, too - fast enough to make it look as if he had got the former Italian prime minister's wheels rolling in the first place, whereas in fact he might have preferred Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister. Mr Prodi is a strong candidate, a leftish technocrat and "third way" reformer like Mr Blair. But the president of the European Commission should not be appointed by the same process as before. The Brussels bureaucracy needs an injection of direct democratic accountability, and the best place to start would be the top. At the very least, the European Parliament should hold US Congressional-style hearings to approve the appointment, as Mr Blair proposed when in opposition. Now he will not even go that far, and yet he should be going much further. Why not have a Europe-wide election for the Commission president, at the same time as the European Parliament elections this summer?

Why not? We know why Mr Blair and his partners meeting in Berlin this week do not want it: the danger of increasing the democratic legitimacy of the Commission is that it makes it more powerful - a dilemma known as the Skinner Paradox, after the Eurosceptic Labour MP for Bolsover. To be sure, this raises all sorts of further questions about the constitution of Europe, to what extent it should follow the US model, the Westminster one or models yet undreamt of. But these are precisely the questions that should be debated in Berlin. This was supposed to be the summit that made the definitive preparations for the expansion of the EU, to include Poland, the Czech Republic and the others camping on the steps.

The clear-out of the Commission offers a wonderful chance to rewrite the EU's constitution to make that expansion workable, and more democratic than the existing Union. Mr Blair told the Commons last week, "I am hesitant about trying to draw up a new constitution for the whole of Europe." But this is a question of leadership, and if the inert, paper-shuffling culture of Brussels cannot be bust open by a crisis like this, then its dead hand will continue to hold back the European ideal.

Mr Blair is up to his usual game of sounding radical in order to try to shift the boundaries of the possible, and certainly there is nothing to be gained by floating crackpot schemes that will only offend our European partners. But a vision of a wider Europe on the Blairite model of a stronger, democratically accountable centre accompanied by the real devolution of power would give the horse-trading in Berlin some sense of purpose.

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