Europe's big players call the shots in Prodi's shake-up

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The Independent Online
ROMANO PRODI revealed his political skills yesterday as he unveiled a new European Commission which gave the top jobs to Europe's biggest powers. Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy share the main spoils of the team which replaces the commission that resigned over sleaze allegations in March.

Although he had more influence over the selection than any of his predecessors, the final line up was not the one Mr Prodi, the president-designate, would have chosen himself. But when the battle with the big EU countries got too tough, Mr Prodi compromised. As one senior diplomat said: "This is a very political choice. He is keeping the big countries happy".

Britain, one of several nations which proclaimed victory, can be satisfied with its showing. Neil Kinnock, one of just four members of the outgoing Commission to stay on, got a better job than expected as vice-president (one of two at this rank) with responsibility for internal reform of the Commission.

With the status of the number two at the Commission, Mr Kinnock will chair some of the Commission meetings in Mr Prodi's absence, and take charge of the Commission's internal administration. In the present political climate, this gives Mr Kinnock a real power base.

Chris Patten will take charge of external relations - an important post, but one likely to lead to turf wars, including one with the new EU foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, who will in effect become the bloc's foreign minister.

Contrary to some expectations, trade and the key issue of EU enlargement are excluded from his portfolio. One source says the position was sold to Tony Blair on the basis that Mr Patten could "dip into all the individual dossiers", although as the executive is a collegiate body, every Commissioner may do this. .

Other national delegations are sceptical about Mr Patten's chances of a wideranging role. Enlargement and trade have gone to Germany and France and neither of their new commissioners, Guenter Verheugen and Pascal Lamy, are shrinking violets. As one diplomat put it: "Mr Verheugen will be in charge of enlargement and he is not a softie."

The trade and enlargement appointments raise questions about Mr Prodi's power and his relationship with the EU's central players. It was no secret that the new commission president was opposed to the idea of Germany getting enlargement, judging that Bonn's economic interest in enlargement was too great. During negotiations with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, Mr Prodi also made clear his preference for a Christian Democrat. Mr Verheugen is a socialist.

Mr Lamy, a former top aide to Jaqcues Delors, has also crossed a threshold, giving France - notorious for its protectionist tendencies - control of trade for the first time in recent years, to the alarm of free-trade champions such as the British and Dutch.

In the run-up to a US election, there is a strong possibility of a rift with the US, although Mr Delors' biographer, Charles Grant, says Mr Lamy is "a high calibre performer and, for a Frenchman, a liberal". His officials will be firmly in the free-trade camp, and Mr Lamy may prove ideal to sell the free-market to a sceptical French public.

Italy also emerges a winner, enjoying not only the presidency, but arguably its most important portfolio too: competition. Mario Monti's appointment to this portfolio will reassure many after his performance as internal market commissioner.

Spain secured monetary affairs for the low-key and technocratic Pedro Solbes, and the second vice-presidency for Loyola de Palacio, the well- regarded ex-agriculture minister.

Her seniority may have something to do with the fact that Mr Prodi was unable to improve on the previous Commission's female contingent of 5 out of 20, despite a firm promise to respect the gender balance. As he admitted yesterday, he "had hoped to have one or two more".

Her appointment may go some way towards molifying the European Parliament which will have to approve the Commission in the autumn, against a background of complaints that there are insufficient right-wingers, and too many ex-commissioners.

In one respect Mr Prodi won the hearts of almost all the Brussels bureaucrats by abolishing the numbering system which identified the 25 policy departments or directorates-general. He said he had refused to learn the numbers, adding: "words are what we need".