EU in crisis: Why no one wants strong leadership in Brussels

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The Independent Online
Yesterday the phrases tripped off the tongues of almost every EU leader: "Time for strong, proven leadership... root-and-branch reform... appointments on the basis of merit... a Europe accountable to the people." But do the heads of Europe's national governments really want what they say they want?

The clamour surrounding the resignation of the Brussels Commission has obscured an essential truth. Contrary to impressions, the demise of the president, Jacques Santer, was not nemesis visited upon an over-mighty supranational executive which was steadily usurping more power from member states.

Over the last decade and a half, in a process that began under the vilified Jacques Delors, power has shifted from Brussels back towards the national governments. More clearly than ever, the dominant institution within the EU is not the Commission but the Council of Ministers. Mr Santer was a weak president - precisely what the national governments wanted in 1994 when they chose him as a compromise candidate.

This week's upheavals have been presented as a victory for the more open and transparent political culture of the northern member states over the laxer, more clique-ridden ways of the South; or at a grossly oversimplified level, of the Protestant over the Catholic way of doing things. But such a victory could have unintended consequences, above all for Britain.

A stronger, more streamlined and credible EU executive would be the last thing any sensible Eurosceptic would want, depriving him of his easiest and most rewarding target. But governments too, for all their rhetoric, may get more than they bargained for.

For them, the ideal is a squeaky clean and uncontroversial - but above all submissive - Brussels. But a more accountable Commission, withhigher quality personnel and greater public scrutiny (either via a permanent independent auditing board or an invigorated European Parliament in Strasbourg) is likely to mean a more confident and therefore powerful commission. Like it or not, governments may find the pendulum swinging back in the opposite direction.

And one quiet revolution could lead to another. The top posts in Europe have generally gone to superannuated domestic politicians or ones who no longer fit into their own national systems. They are nominated by national governments who give the president virtually no say in the matter.

But a Commission chief of real standing, with the right to choose his own people, could attract younger politicians to the EU. If so, Brussels could become an integral part of a national political career, rather than a belated appendage. That too might be not exactly as member governments intend.