Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, scored a spectacular public relations own goal yesterday, highlighting assurances of support from his colleagues, which drew attention to claims that confidence in him is fading.
At a private session of the Commission lasting two and a half hours, he ruled out any change of course or leadership but, in the process, gave credence to articles in the German media suggesting that his future is in question.
A mood of alarm in Brussels has been fuelled by two days of panicky media mismanagement, reminiscent of the Commission of Jacques Santer, which resigned a year ago in disgrace. But while the German press has been scathing in its criticism of Mr Prodi's six months in office, it has not produced any credible new information to provoke a crisis.
That, however, did not prevent his minders from going into overdrive as Mr Prodi convened the special political session of the Commission for only the second time. Yesterday's meeting produced "a confirmation of the unity" of the Commission, a spokesman said. He also volunteered that Mr Prodi has received pledges of continued support from the French President, Jacques Chirac, the German Chancellor, Gerhard SchrÃ¶der, and the Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres.
Since the new year Mr Prodi has been the object of criticism from a number of European capitals, particularly over his suggestion that Colonel Gadd-afi should visit Brussels. That invitation had to be withdrawn.
The most recent criticism in the German press began with an attack in this week's edition of Der Spiegel. That was followed by an uncharacteristically wild front-page story in the normally sober German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The article, speculating that two British commissioners, Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten, are attempting to unseat and replace Mr Prodi, prompted a lengthy denial from the Commission on Tuesday, drawing attention to the claims.
Last night Mr Kinnock and Mr Patten sent a joint letter to the newspaper, rejecting its "fictitious assertions" of a plot against Mr Prodi and its "utterly untrue allegations" that they harbour ambitions to take over.Reuse content