EU to get Labour-style spin doctors

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HUNDREDS OF professional spin doctors are to be employed by the European Commission as part of a big shake-up of the press operation designed to improve Brussels' image.

Romano Prodi, the incoming president, intends setting up a New Labour- style media "war room" in Brussels to monitor press reaction and issue orders to offices around the European Union. About 500 personnel will be deployed to try to cut the number of negative stories arising about the Commission.

Another 150 are likely to be recruited for the new "press and communications unit". Journalists, television producers and public relations executives have been approached, the aim being to have high-profile staff answering questions in public.

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader and now an EU commissioner, last week said Mr Prodi wanted to give greater priority to providing information on the EU's policy and agenda. A spokesman for the Commission also admitted that the EU, in the past, had "in many cases failed to get the message across at all".

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, has advised Mr Prodi on how to improve the Commission's image, and recently Ricardo Levi, the president-designate's spokes-man, has, in turn, visited London to discuss the shake-up.

Mr Campbell is convinced that the British public is hostile to the single currency, mainly because of antagonism to the Commission, which is perceived to be over-bureaucratic and corrupt.

Mr Prodi knows that he is fighting a losing battle with the British press, where coverage of Brussels has always concentrated on sleaze, rules about straight bananas, and bans on double-decker buses. He hopes the improved media operation will have an impact in other EU countries where newspapers are less hostile to Brussels.

But John Maples, the shadow foreign secretary, was scathing about the proposals. "Instead of taking the lead in cleaning up Brussels and restoring public confidence in its integrity, he is creating a massive army of Euro spin doctors whose job it will be to soften up ... Britain in preparation for the scrapping of the pound."