EU set to appoint new head by Friday

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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN UNION leaders look likely to choose a successor to Jacques Santer as president of the European Commission by the time they wrap up a summit meeting in Berlin on Friday morning.

Last night the field of candidates had narrowed to two: Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister.

Mr Prodi, the clear favourite, has already been publicly endorsed by most of the 15 governments. In London, British ministers said he was now the strong favourite: "There is a growing consensus behind him," said one. The ministers hope agreement on his appointment might be reached at the summit of EU leaders in Berlin starting tomorrow, although the German hosts say it may take longer.

Downing Street said yesterday that Mr Prodi was "a very high quality person" and a "real reformer". Although Tony Blair's spokesman said the same description would apply to Wim Kok, he had "given every indication he is unlikely to be a candidate".

Privately both the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, and Mr Blair, have indicated they have a preference for Mr Kok. Mr Blair's spokesman sought to allay fears that the choice of an Italian might damage the EU's image in Britain because of the spate of corruption scandals in Italy. "It's pretty insulting to suggest the northern states are all clean and the southern ones corrupt," he said.

Michael Howard, the shadow foreign secretary, said Mr Blair's backing for the former Italian prime minister showed he has "failed utterly" to learn the lessons of last week's damning inquiry report on the Commission. Mr Howard said Mr Prodi "would take Europe further along the path to a single European state".

The European Parliament, in emergency session in Brussels last night, warned EU governments that the countdown to clearing out the old Commission and installing a new one had begun in earnest.

Labour's Pauline Green, leader of the socialists, the biggest faction in the 626-member parliament, said her group wanted a new presidential candidate designated at Berlin. The new president should be "experienced, competent and committed to in-depth reform". Socialists wanted "a whole new Commission in place with speed, properly ratified by this Parliament using the powers that will be given to us in the incoming Amsterdam Treaty".

Enforcing the terms of the Treaty early would also give the new president the right to refuse the names of individual commissioners put forward by the national governments. Germany's Foreign Minister, Joshka Fischer, promised MEPs that his government, which holds the EU presidency, is now hoping for parliamentary ratification of the new Commission president by mid-April. That would require political agreement on the candidate at or shortly after the Berlin meeting, which opens tomorrow.

n Mr Blair is edging to a compromise over the special rebate on Britain's contributions to the EU, which is worth pounds 2bn a year. The Prime Minister would accept a new formula that would reduce the value of the rebate - but Britain's payments to Brussels would also fall.

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