Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for external relations, has issued a blunt warning that the next Commission president will have to face down pressure from the EU's national capitals and resist being "bullied" by prime ministers.
Mr Patten, who has denied he wants to be president, demonstrates the growing concern in Brussels at the influence of EU member states, particularly the UK, France and Germany. He said: "The next president will need to be able to provide a narrative for what the EU has to be and what it has to do today."
He also told The Independent: "He, or she, will have to be able to stand up to the member states and avoid being bullied, and convince them it is their European Commission and, if it is not strong, that is bad for all of them."
When EU heads of government meet next month in Brussels they will have to try to select a successor to Romano Prodi, who stands down at the end of October. There is no clear favourite.
Mr Patten said he has already prepared to devote his time to his job as chancellor of Oxford University, writing books and chairing an international think-tank. "I have not found any reason for thinking other options would be better," he added.
There is a growing perception that the European Commission has lost out to national governments, and to MEPs, in the daily inter-institutional battleground of EU politics. The Commission, a bureaucracy with the right to initiate EU legislation, is supposed to be an honest broker and to enforce EU rules.
The incoming president will face pressure from Germany, France and the UK to establish a super-commissioner for economic policy. But if such a post is established, the Commission president will decide who gets it.
Berlin is lobbying hard for the job though some officials believe that, were Germany to secure it, that could temper the next Commission's commitment to economic liberalisation. Germany and France have been trying to co-ordinate economic policy, and Paris has backed calls for policies to promote "national champions" of industry.
Member states are more ready now to criticise Commission decisions with which they disagree. The most direct challenge has come from Germany and France which undermined the Commission's strategy on enforcing the euro's rulebook. The UK has made outspoken attacks on the Commission's internal market commissioner, and the Germans have criticised industrial policies.
Mr Prodi's presidency of the EU has failed to stop the Commission's political authority eroding. That leaves his successor facing a tough challenge of winning the confidence of EU governments, while not caving in to pressure and maintaining the Commission's neutrality as an honest broker.
The choice of next president is proving so difficult because of the divisions among national capitals. Tony Blair is anxious to block the Luxembourg premier, Jean-Claude Juncker, and his Belgian counterpart, Guy Verhofstadt, because he sees both men as advocates of closer European integration who are too close to Paris and Berlin. And the French are resisting any idea that Mr Patten, or the Danish Premier, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, might win the job.
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