Prodi grasps the reins of Europe's new `government'

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ROMANO PRODI was yesterday installed at the head of a self-proclaimed new "government" for Europe, despite a hitch during the vote by MEPs to approve his appointment as European Commission President.

He arrived 11 minutes late for the crucial confirmation session in the European Parliament, because he was awaiting translation of his speech. But Mr Prodi and his 19 European commissioners won the backing of nearly three-quarters of MEPs despite the opposition of British Conservatives.

His approval brings to an end a turbulent period for Brussels, culminating in the resignation of Jacques Santer and his commissioners in March over allegations of sleaze.

Ending two weeks of wrangling with MEPs, who have held hearings for each of the 19 commissioners, Mr Prodi made several concessions to the parliament. He promised a whistle-blowers' charter for bureaucrats in Brussels, MEPs could have "suitable input" into the preparation for the next round of EU enlargement, and he would to consider seriously any parliamentary call for a commissioner to be sacked.

Mr Prodi has emerged in a powerful position and is already staking a claim to the degree of influence over the future of Europe of the type enjoyed by Jacques Delors.

Asked about his new team, Mr Prodi said: "One can say that they do form a government because the voices with which they speak are harmonious".

Mr Prodi wants one big inter-governmental conference to agree institutional changes, paving the way to EU enlargement. That is opposed by several countries, including Britain, who want to deal with issues left over from the last treaty.

Yesterday's vote was hailed as a new dawn for the EU with Neil Kinnock, a Vice-President, saying that Brussels "now has the chance to build a new standard of European public service".

The vote of approval - 414 for, 142 against and 35 abstentions in the last of five votes - was a setback for British Conservative MEPs, who stuck to a pledge to vote against the Commission. Later they declined to attend a photocall with the British commissioners.