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Prodi gives ground to save his team

ROMANO PRODI, the incoming European Commission president, is on course to win approval for all 19 of his new team for Brussels, after promising MEPs more influence over whether errant commissioners should be sacked.

In a move that all but guarantees success in a vote next week, he acceded last night to one of the key demands of MEPs by promising to "examine seriously" any vote calling for the head of an individual commissioner. At present the parliament can only vote to expel the entire commission.

The promise, made as the parliament finished its grilling of would-be commissioners, was welcomed by Hans-Gert Pottering, who said he will recommend that the 233-strong centre-right bloc he leads votes to approve the commission. He hailed the move as a "great step forward in the process of democracy and accountability", saying Mr Prodi had "agreed to my proposals". He would recommend "that the commission is allowed to start work".

That appeared to marginalise the 36 British Conservatives, who said that they would vote against the commission, as promised in their election manifesto.

Mr Prodi's promise is an elegant compromise because, while it offers the parliament more influence, it does not bind the incoming president or extend the powers that the parliament has under treaty. In a statement after meeting leaders of the biggest groups of MEPs, Mr Prodi said that when the parliament expresses a lack of confidence in any individual, "I will examine seriously whether I should request that member to resign".

He also pledged to "take the utmost account of any requests" from MEPs to the commission consistent with existing law to submit new legislative proposals.

Earlier yesterday Neil Kinnock, European vice-president-designate, set the scene for a clash over reforms in Brussels by promising a purge of incompetent bureaucrats. Officials judged by their seniors to be under- performing would be offered options including re-training but ultimately would be pressed to "pursue their careers elsewhere". He said: "I cannot have a tiny minority not up to the job having an impact on those who are up to the job."

Mr Kinnock, due to produce a blueprint for reform in February, promised to get rid of automatic promotion, a feature of bureaucratic life in Brussels, where length of service is still rewarded over perceived ability. He also pledged not only to shake up the "management and mentality" of the service but also to "put a premium on management skill and performance as a condition of appointment, promotion and responsibility in a way that has never been done in the commission before".

In another controversial initiative, he highlighted the system under which "national experts" are seconded to Brussels, and promised to encourage the reverse, with Brussels bureaucrats being sent out to national and local government in member-states.

In a combative performance, Mr Kinnock denied any personal blame for the failures of the discredited European Commission of which he was a member and which he described as a "preventable tragedy".

He explained why he decided to take part in the collective resignation of the old commission team after an inquiry report which highlighted lax management, cronyism and nepotism.

"I accepted collective responsibility because in the circumstances I felt we could do no other, and I counselled in the commission for resignation, which I intended to take in any event when I read the report.

"I could honestly say I accepted collective responsibility but I cannot honestly say I can accept individual guilt. In my conscience, in my heart and my own personal integrity, I did not feel stained. The whole series of events was a preventable tragedy."