Prodi forces Euro MPs to back down

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The Independent Online
EURO-MPS DREW back from the brink of a clash with Romano Prodi, the incoming European Commission president, withdrawing threats to hold his team on probation and scaling back attacks on one of the most vulnerable members of his line-up.

After a morning of diplomacy, centre-right MEPs who dominate the parliament were on course to reach a deal with Mr Prodi defusing the crisis sparked by the back-me-or-sack-me ultimatum of the president-designate.

The fourth day of hearings still left a question mark over the incoming commission as an alliance of MEPs fought to block the appointment of the Belgian nominee, Philippe Busquin, after his savaging in a hearing on Wednesday. A verdict on his performance said it was unable to give "a clear-cut answer" about his suitability "due to the split positions within the committee".

But there was better news for Mr Prodi over the row which exploded on Wednesday over his ultimatum. That emerged in a statement saying he would not accept suggestions that the incoming commission should face a second vote in December or January, in addition to one scheduled for 15 September. After a conversation with Mr Prodi, Hans-Gert Pottering, leader of the centre-right, withdrew suggestions that a second vote will hang over the new team.

"I have no doubts that the Commission, if we are able to confirm it on September 15, will be in office until 2004," Mr Pottering said, suggesting the two separate votes could be held almost simultaneously. In exchange, he said, he was calling for concessions including a promise to make commissioners more available to parliament, a pledge that if MEPs pass a vote criticising an individual it will be taken seriously by Mr Prodi and a promise to act on calls from MEPs to initiate new legislation. The move was welcomed by Mr Prodi as "an avenue which we are more than willing to explore".

The new climate of calm was consolidated when centre-right MEPs failed to deliver a promised attack on Pascal Lamy, the nominated trade commissioner, with Tories claiming lamely that they had "run out of time".

The day began with an assured performance by Chris Patten, who emerged from his interrogation by MEPs with plaudits. Mr Patten, nominated to the external relations portfolio, stressed his commitment to European integration and argued that he is unlikely to return to British politics.

On the potential for a clash between his duties and those of Mr Lamy, Mr Patten said it was "the last job I am ever going to do - at least that is what I have told my wife - so I am entirely beyond worldly ambition. I am entirely beyond turf wars. Anyway, who's ever heard of an Englishman disagreeing with a Frenchmen?"