Europe needs a strong leader, as this shambolic summit proves

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Henry Kissinger's old complaint about the European Union was that you never knew who to call. He was speaking from the transatlantic perspective. But from inside Europe, it is still almost as difficult to tell who is in charge.

Henry Kissinger's old complaint about the European Union was that you never knew who to call. He was speaking from the transatlantic perspective. But from inside Europe, it is still almost as difficult to tell who is in charge.

It is not just the array of similar-sounding job titles ­ President of the European Commission, President of the Council of Ministers, EU foreign policy chief ­ that is unhelpful to the average citizen. For some years now, there has been a lack of identifiable leadership and direction in Brussels. The Commission, the EU's traditional motor, has been paralysed by weak presidents and the meddling of the most powerful states. This drift has only reinforced the perception of the European idea as a remote bureaucracy run by an out-of-touch elite.

And few things are more guaranteed to switch off already hostile voters than the scenes at the Brussels summit as EU leaders sought a successor for the outgoing president, Romano Prodi. Despite last night's progress towards a historic deal on the EU's first ever constitution, the summit atmosphere was marred by an ugly spat over the next head of the Commission. President Chirac reportedly threw his weight around, Tony Blair accused the French of bullying, and both men vetoed the other's candidates, Guy Verhofstadt and Chris Patten respectively. This only serves to make the process look as shabby as a brawl in the Big Brother house.

Yet this is a critical appointment for anyone who has the common European interest at heart. Europe desperately needs a strong figure who can restore morale and reconnect the Union to its people. And in a Union of 25, that means standing up to the strong-arming and corrupt lobbying that bigger governments typically use to sway decisions to suit their narrow national interests. France and Germany openly flout the rules that underpin the single currency, for instance. The ability to square up to them will be all the more important over the coming years as the new member states prepare to join the euro.

The next president should ideally be more politician than technocrat, yet be a master of detail in the important, albeit unglamorous areas where the Commission has immense power, such as competition. He or she must have a public face, and a voice that communicates the Union's message effectively, especially in English.

Smaller EU states have always understood the vital role of the Commission as a guarantor of the interests of the Union as a whole. The bigger states want the impossible. They want a president with gravitas, but also a sympathetic ear when they phone up pleading special treatment. Tony Blair could do with a charismatic figure to help sell the new treaty, but not if that means another Delors, a federalist visionary.

We have two examples of the damage a weak Commission president can do. The hapless Jacques Santer's Commission had to resign en masse after a corruption scandal. Mr Prodi kept his eye more on Italian politics, communicated poorly and had little input in the shaping of the constitution. At a time when that document will have to be ratified by all the member states, a third weak president in a row would be disaster.

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