Who'd want the top job in Brussels?

If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it must be the role of European Commission president
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The Independent Online

There's only one piece of advice to be given to Chris Patten if he is seriously considering becoming president of the European Commission after Romano Prodi. And that is: "Don't".

Not that he will necessarily be offered the job. Despite the low esteem in which the EU Commission is held after Romano Prodi's embattled period in charge, his job is attracting a veritable gaggle of potential appointees. The latest is Pat Cox, the ever popular Irish president of the European Parliament, who yesterday threw his hat into a ring already covered in the headgear of ex-premiers of Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Austria.

Chris Patten has the advantage of a high public profile and coming from a big country, as well as having made no great enemies in Europe at the moment. But he also comes from a country that isn't part of the euro and has upset half the Continent by its stand on Iraq (a stand, incidentally, not supported by Patten himself) while the job has recently tended to be given to an ex-premier. In the labyrinthine corridors of European politics, the British rarely win out.

But even if he was to be offered the job, Patten would be ill advised to take it. If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it must be the role of heading the European Commission. Right across Europe, even among the new members, the opinion polls tell an almost universal picture of public disenchantment with the EU, in general, and its institutions in Brussels in particular. The stories of accounting scandals, high living and poor morale have made Brussels into a sort of Siberia of Western Europe, a place where only those unable to make it at home are sent.

Prodi hasn't helped with his egregious habits of evasion and backroom dealing, born of years in Italian politics. His term of office has, to most eyes, been a disaster of missed opportunities and muddled direction. Nor has he made any secret of his view of the job as a stepping stone back into the race for the Italian premiership, whither he is now bound.

He is not alone. No less than four other commissioners are leaving early over the next few months to take up careers back home: Erkki Liikanen of Finland, Michel Barnier of France, Pedro Solbes of Spain and Anna Diamantopoulou of Greece. The fact that they are returning to good jobs (Mr Barnier has been appointed French foreign minister, Mr Liikanen is heading the Finnish Central Bank, Mr Solbes is Spain's new finance minister) could be regarded as proof of the quality of the commissioners (not always appreciated in Britain, where the job of commissioner is treated as the ante-room of retirement). But then again, it is also an indication of how much less important Brussels is regarded even in the smallest countries, compared to domestic politics.

This is partly because of the internal politics of the Commission and the way it is treated by its member countries. Nearly everyone in Europe wants a Union that combines its forces to tackle crime, terrorism and the big issues of economic growth and international clout, but only the smaller countries want the bureaucracy at the centre to carry it out. Battered by demands for "efficiency" cuts and abused by their public back home, being a Brussels bureaucrat is no fun these days.

Add to that all the reforms being introduced to cope with enlargement, including cutting down the number of commissioners appointed by the big countries, as well as the changes in the new constitution yet to be agreed, and you can see that an ambitious politician these days might think himself well advised to give Brussels a wide berth.

The job of Commission president has prestige - but will it, under the new reforms, have power? In the past, it has been the recognisable face of Europe. But under the new constitution, that face is supposed to be the president of the Council, a new position to be appointed directly by the premiers of the member states to chair the Council and represent the Union.

Which leaves the Commission president where? What it needs, first and foremost, is someone who can restore morale within the organisation and give it both a sense of direction and a public profile. But for that, you need not a man with a glib tongue and not so much interest in running an organisation, like Chris Patten, but a man with a real feel for handling a bureaucracy and giving it direction - a Jacques Delors, in fact.

Roy Jenkins was a success because he was a great operator, with a shrewd sense of priorities, who set himself the task of forcing the Commission onto centre stage on an equal part with ministers and premiers. As a commissioner, you could see Peter Mandelson - still very much a front runner for the job as Britain's sole commissioner, come the autumn - being effective in the same way until he eventually overreached himself (as surely he would).

But Chris Patten for the top job? Jostling for position with both a president of the Council and a new foreign minister for Europe? Heading an organisation with rock bottom morale, that was being disowned by every politician seeking to get the constitution through a referendum?

He'd be mad even to think of it.