Berlin Summit: Prodi is chosen to clean up Brussels

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The Independent Online
EUROPE'S LEADERS moved swiftly to appoint the former Italian president, Romano Prodi, as European Commission president yesterday, but left new uncertainty about the timing of his arrival and of the departure of disgraced commissioners, including Edith Cresson.

Acting with unexpected speed, the 15 European heads of government needed only a brief discussion to confirm predictions and offer Jacques Santer's job as Commission president to Mr Prodi.

The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, who chaired the meeting, hailed the appointment as a success, arguing that "as a result of this very rapid and unanimous decision it has become clear that the council of the EU can act".

Mr Prodi, who was prime minister of Italy until last autumn when his Olive Tree coalition government fell, will hold talks with the leaders of the 15 governments next month to discuss his programme toclean up Brussels.

Yesterday's deal - a public relations coup for the German presidency of the EU - emerged after three other contenders - Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese Prime Minister, and Javier Solana, Nato Secretary-General - fell by the wayside.

But yesterday's decision failed to fill the vacuum in Brussels completely. It had few answers about the life-span of the current caretaker administration, made up of Mr Santer and the other 19 commissioners who resigned en masse 10 days ago. British and French government sources said Mr Prodi would not be available to start until June.

The leaders failed to address the problems involved in keeping the caretaker commission, which may legally be obliged to continue in office until it is formally replaced. Because of the speed with which yesterday's decision was made, the heads of government had insufficient time to get a legal opinion on how to proceed. Tony Blair's spokesman said: "We are still a bit unclear about how it is going to work but it should not be beyond the wit of the great and good to figure it out. The important thing is we have got a real political heavyweight with an agreed mandate for reform."

One scenario is that Mr Santer, who has announced plans to stand as an MEP, would step down from his Brussels post immediately, leaving the Commission temporarily without a president. He may go on an extended Easter break and not return to his office.

Challenged about the timing of Mr Prodi's installation, Mr Schroder said: "That depends on the decision of the parliament." If Mr Prodi does, as expected, take over before July, he faces two screening processes: the first by the current parliament, the second by the new one after European elections in June. There remains a separate and more complex question mark over the Commission, with several member states wanting the rapid departure of Ms Cresson, and perhaps other discredited colleagues. That would leave the remaining commissioners in post at least until the summer.

This scenario is fraught with difficulties, with no sign that Ms Cresson, the education and training commissioner, would allow herself to be singled out for harsh treatment. Some countries, including Britain, have said they intend to renominate their commissioners until the end of the year when their term of office was due to expire.

The German Chancellor praised a plan put forward by the Benelux countries, which would involve Mr Prodi in consultations with the national governments about which members of the current commission should be invited to serve until the end of the year, and on how to proceed with an overhaul of the Commission.

The appointment of Mr Prodi was widely welcomed by MEPs yesterday. Mr Prodi himself, in Frankfurt on a scheduled visit, said the job would be a "great challenge", adding that "there is also enormous satisfaction for my country that there was unanimity". The former Italian prime minister said the next few weeks would be dedicated to preparing "a five-year programme for the new Europe".