Prodi admits Europeans view Brussels as remote

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The Independent Online

The European Commission admitted yesterday it had lost the confidence of millions of Europeans, and unveiled plans to throw open decision-making, cut red tape and regain the trust of disenchanted citizens.

In a long-awaited White Paper, Romano Prodi, the Commission's president, acknowledged a "widening gulf" between Europe and its voters, who saw Brussels as "remote" and "too intrusive". The paper promised to step up contacts with pressure groups and regional politicians.

The initiative has been given added urgency by the violent protests that marred the G8 summit in Genoa, and the Irish referendum rejection of the Nice Treaty in June.

The proposals include moves to guarantee consultation with outside groups under a new code of conduct and to boost online information systems to inform ordinary people.

Brussels also wants to simplify its structures.

Mr Prodi said an early aim was to trim the body of EU legislation, which, at 80,000 pages was "far too much", and streamline the Commission's 700 advisory committees.

The new paper calls for the implementation of some EU activities to be contracted to local or regional authorities, but also demanded that the Commission's role as Europe's executive arm should be strengthened.

The European Commission's White Paper on European Governance says: "Many people are losing confidence in a poorly understood and complex system to deliver the policies that they want. The Union is often seen as remote and, at the same time, too intrusive.

"The Irish 'no' showed how alienated many people are. The European Commission accepts that 'democratic institutions and representatives of the people, at both national and European level, can and must try to connect Europe with its citizens'." Although EU leaders are due to embark on a debate on the future of Europe in December, leading to another round of constitutional change in 2004, Mr Prodi outlined more practical changes, which could be achieved without the need for a treaty change. His package of mainly technical measures includes plans to "open up the policy-making process to get more people and organisations involved in shaping and delivering EU policy".

While conceding that "constitutional debates in most countries are not sexy", Mr Prodi said the debate was crucial. He wants online information laying down the steps in policy making, closer links with regional and local government and better ties with non- governmental organisations.

Brussels will also lay down "minimum standards for consultation" in a code of conduct by the end of 2001. The EU's key themes should, his document says, be openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence. Other ideas include the publication of guidelines on the use of expert advice and on how the European Commission investigates breaches of European Union law.