French wail as top EU jobs go to Brits

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A satirical review by Brussels journalists recently depicted the European Commission President, Romano Prodi, as a mafia boss in dark glasses, and his press spokesman, Ricardo Levi, as a luckless sidekick.

"Ricky, my son," whispered Godfather Prodi, before dispatching Mr Levi to the traditional resting place of failed mafiosi, "I am very disappointed with you."

Last week life finally imitated art when Mr Levi became one of two victims in a reshuffle of the European Commission president's three most senior aides. Shunted aside to head the Commission's think tank, Mr Levi has paid the price for months of poor publicity which brought allegations of dithering and incompetence, claims of an Anglo-Saxon plot and a far-fetched report of an imminent palace coup in Brussels.

Those who expect Mr Levi to disappear will be disappointed, because he is Mr Prodi's oldest ally, or, as one Commission official puts it, "family". He will continue to be the Commission president's closest adviser, and spent some of the first morning of his new job on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Not exactly the behaviour of someone determined to shun the limelight. But the significance of last week goes beyond the demotion of Mr Levi or the greater indignity inflicted on the Commission's secretary general, Carlo Trojan, who is being exiled to the Commission's spankingly grand residence in Geneva. After eight months in office, Mr Prodi has had to shore up his control of the bureaucracy and appease a suspicious French government. The shuffle has tightened his grip on the Brussels machine by giving Mr Trojan's powerful job to David O'Sullivan, the Irishman who headed Mr Prodi's cabinet, but the significant thing about Mr O'Sullivan's replacement is his nationality: Michel Petite is French.

This last appointment follows a tide of attacks on the Prodi Commission in the French media. Begun by Libération last year, a now familiar thesis turned up last week in Le Monde. Under a banner headline, it complained of "Tony Blair's rampant takeover of Europe", a development which has not, so far, been noticed by the British tabloids.

Many in Brussels think French sources were behind a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, traditionally Germany's most staid paper, which excitedly claimed that Britain's two Commissioners, Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten, were plotting a palace coup against Mr Prodi. As one diplomat put it last week: "Although Michel Petite is perfectly competent, he's there by dint of his nationality, not ability. Prodi had to throw something to the French to stop them being so hysterical."

What is happening, in fact, is less a British takeover than a dilution of French influence. The first non-francophone Commission President since Roy Jenkins left Brussels in 1981 and a free-marketeer to boot, Mr Prodi has long been viewed with suspicion by the French. His preference for speaking English rather than French has been elevated into such a significant symbol that the Commission President has now reverted to speaking Italian.

A combination of other factors have fuelled alarm among traditionalists. The first is that Mr Kinnock, the Commission Vice-President, has instituted a series of reforms designed to bring proper financial management and end the "jobs for life culture" in Brussels. Naturally, many of those in the Commission are deeply hostile, and what better way to attack "activity-based management" and similar, jargon-strewn reforms than to denounce them as (in Le Monde's words) "typically Anglo-Saxon"?

This has gained credence because Britain is doing better than in the past at winning senior Brussels posts, although it is only catching up with other big countries. Assuming all goes well between now and the summer, Mr Levi's replacement will be his British deputy, Jonathan Faull. Of the top-earning grade A1 jobs, eight are occupied by Britons, one more than France holds but three fewer than Germany. Of the next ranking (A2s) the figure was 29 for the United Kingdom and 29 for France, but 22 for Germany. Of all A-grade management staff, Britain still trails France, Germany and Italy.

Meanwhile, on the wider European stage, the power bases which traditionally dominated the EU - France, Germany and the European Commission - have weakened. The departure of Helmut Kohl from the German Chancellery in 1997 marked a turning point for Germany, which has taken a more pragmatic course and lost much of its political appetite for European integration.

There has also been a shift to policy areas where the European Commission has no competence, such as justice and home affairs, foreign and security policy and defence. A loss of political direction has created more potential for other countries to strike influential alliances outside the Franco-German axis. For example, by cultivating Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, Tony Blair helped to set the free-market and deregulatory agenda for March's Lisbon summit on economic reform.

All this adds up to a vacuum at the heart of Europe, rather than a crisis, and last week's reshuffle is designed to help Mr Prodi to assert himself more fully in this politics of flux. But he will have to tread carefully over the coming months, particularly when France assumes the EU's rotating presidency in July. For its six-month tenure, France will be determined to put its own stamp on the running of Europe and, if Paris feels that it is gaining insufficient backing from the Commission, the sniping could well resume.

Some Brits in Brussels fully expect to be caught in the continuing crossfire, and one senior British official was last week at pains to avoid triumphalism. "Actually," he joked, "I'm still moving between safe houses under cover of darkness."

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