The decision, by the 15 heads of government and the incoming president of the commission, requires a bigger than expected clear-out of the 20- strong team this year. That means the term of office of Sir Leon Brittan, one of Britain's two commissioners, will be curtailed. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, made clear the new team, which has to be ratified by the European Parliament, should be the one that serves a five-and-a-half year term, with no "interim" commissioners.
Last night's meeting over dinner with Romano Prodi, the Italian former prime minister nominated to take over from Jacques Santer as commission president, was the first detailed discussion on reform in Brussels. Mr Prodi called for a balance between men and women in his team as a "visible renewal of the commission", although names will not be determined until June's Cologne summit. The timetable envisaged now is that Mr Prodi will be endorsed by the current European Parliament next month, after which he will discuss membership of the new commission with member- states which nominate them.
In an embarrassing reminder of the legacy of the crisis in Brussels, Paul van Buitenen, whose testimony helped bring down the commission, heaped more criticism on his employers, despite a decision to reinstate him on full pay. Yesterday the whistle-blower attacked the authorities for refusing to drop disciplinary charges against him and for not allowing him to return to his old job as an auditor. Instead Mr Van Buitenen will be working in an equivalent position starting tomorrow, in a section dealing with the management of buildings. Yesterday he argued: "If the commission want to remain credible, one of the steps they should take is to give me back my job as an auditor. It is incredible that the commission still want to continue disciplinary proceedings".
Mr Van Buitenen said his testimony, leaked in December last year to the European Parliament, has been vindicated by the independent experts' report which toppled Mr Santer last month.
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