European Times - The Commission: Now Brussels takes up the Campbell spin

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The Independent Online
IT IS the job from public relations hell, the task that tests the outer limits of modern political spin. This week a new question will be posed across the Continent: is it possible to rehabilitate the image of the the European Commission? After years of amateurism, turf wars and backbiting, the spokesperson's service in Brussels is finally going professional, harnessing the devices which helped New Labour to power in Britain.

The modernisation of the Brussels media machine is taking place with only arms-length help from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's legendary press secretary. But the ghost of the man who helped new Labour to power in Britain, then revitalised the press office at Nato, now hovers over the Breydel, the Brussels headquarters of the European Commission. Listen, for example, to one insider who outlined the task of the new media team of the President of the Commission, Romano Prodi, in classic New Labour- speak: "More power to the centre, more control of the message."

Out will go long lunches, in will come the weapons of a 21st century political armoury: forward planning, media monitoring and rapid rebuttal. Most importantly, the office of Mr Prodi will be in control. That, at least, is the theory. In fact, the process has already provoked a battle of wills over the right of individual commissioners to select their spokespeople.

All agree that something must be done. With nothing as flash as standard- issue mobile phones, some Brussels press officers can be as accessible as an ex-directory recluse. And over the years Brussels has failed to kill off waves of Euro-myths from directives on banana shapes to threats to the British banger. With press like this it is surprising that the last commission took so long to disintegrate.

Enter Mr Prodi and his long-standing ally and biographer, Ricardo Franco Levi. Mr Levi, who speaks English, Spanish and French as well as Italian, served as government spokesman when his boss was prime minister in Rome. But he is a journalist too, having co-founded a now-defunct Italian newspaper modelled on The Independent. Slight and silver-haired, Mr Levi mixes charm with icy authority exuding the air of a hard-headed operator, an impression confirmed by his decision to axe the entire spokesperson's service, the so-called porte parole.

His initial plan was to strip the 19 commissioners of their individual press officers, replacing them with a small tightly knit team under central control to promote the objectives of the Commission.

Then came a minor rebellion. During the first meeting of the new Commission in July several commissioners pressed for the right to appoint their own press aides, a plea repeated at a second gathering in Brussels. One compromise has been made, and most commissioners can now expect to have a press officer even if he or she will be redeployed in busy times. But at least two, Britain's Chris Patten and Ireland's David Byrne, are still holding out for the right to select an external candidate rather than one chosen by Mr Levi.

The structure emerging looks rather like a more flexible version of the present one, with most new staff likely to be recruited internally. Not only does this mean that the first loyalty is to "the centre", rather than the commissioner, it also makes things cheaper.

While the current press officers have been purged, some of an earlier line-up has re-emerged, including Mr Levi's Portuguese deputy, Joao Vale de Almeida, a former spokesman for Jacques Santer, the last commission president. And control, Campbell-style is simply impossible in Brussels. Even if the notoriously leaky Commission can be muzzled, information will seep out via diplomats from 15 different member states, MEPs or the presidency of the European Union.

The biggest puzzle is why an impressive list of 350 people should put themselves forward for such a thankless job. For the past two weeks most have been put through a simulated media grilling in front of the stage lights and television cameras of the empty press room in Brussels. As the questions rained down in English and French, at least one hapless victim succumbed to stage fright, another to an attack of nervous laughter.

Who are they all? Most are career officials in search of a more interesting life. But, according to one insider, there are some exceptions: "Half the British journalists in Brussels are sniffing around, trying to join the porte parole", he said.