Prodi shuffles his leading aides after press criticism

Romano Prodi's three top aides were fired or reshuffled yesterday in an attempt by the European Commission president to stem criticism of his tenure in Brussels.

After savage attacks on his leadership in the German and French media, Mr Prodi moved his spokesman and long-term ally, Ricardo Levi, to a back-room policy job away from the limelight.

The other main casualty was Carlo Trojan, the Commission's secretary general and a survivor of the tainted administration of Jacques Santer, the former Commission president. He was exiled to head the Commission's office in Geneva, his job in charge of more than 15,000 officials going to David O'Sullivan, the Irish career official who has been head of Mr Prodi's cabinet. Despite rumours of Mr Levi's imminent demise, few expected Mr Prodi to move so quickly or to push through such a big reshuffle. "This reshuffle affects the top three posts so this is a very significant change," said one official, adding that the appointment of a loyalist assecretary general reinforced Mr Prodi's control over thebureaucracy.

Mr Prodi denied he had been pushed into the reshuffle, but conceded the existence of a "communications gap". The catalyst for change may have been a report in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which claimed that Mr Prodi was allowing drift to set in while Neil Kinnock, the Commission vice-president, and Chris Patten, the foreign affairs commissioner, plotted a palace coup.

Although the content of the article was seen by most as far-fetched, the panic reaction of Mr Prodi's team created a mini-crisis when a special meeting of commissioners was convened to reaffirm support for the president.

Mr Levi's interim successor will be his deputy, Jonathan Faull, a British lawyer who is expected to take over full-time in the summer, provided the intervening period passes smoothly. In a separate move, Emma Udwin, a BBC journalist, joined the Commission press service this week. Despite being the product of a political wobble, yesterday's reshuffle displays Mr Prodi's adeptness at shuffling staff and shoring up his position.