We need this plan of yours, Delors: The outgoing President is reshaping the European Commission, says Andrew Marshall

Click to follow
THE BETTING has already begun in the bars and pubs of Brussels. Money is being wagered on who will succeed Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, when he departs at the end of next year. Rumours and gossip are being swapped over who will take up the other commissioners' posts, as many of them will change hands at the same time.

This speculation, a year before the jobs change hands, is one sign of the weakness of an institution at the heart of the European Union. But as the 12 heads of state and government convened this weekend in Brussels for their summit, they did not have to look hard to see the wider problems that are feeding the malaise in the Union.

Most of Europe is experiencing labour unrest as the number of unemployed among the 12 members hits 17 million. The Union has been held hostage for most of this year by French threats to veto an international trade agreement. The European monetary system, having spat out the British and Italian currencies, succumbed to a near- terminal spasm earlier this year, all but extinguishing grander dreams of a single currency. According to the most recent poll, 40 per cent of the European population would be indifferent if the European Union were to be scrapped, and 11 per cent would be relieved.

The European Commission has become a focus of the malaise. It is the European Union's executive bureaucracy, making proposals for member states to decide upon. But it is also the institution charged directly with taking the Union standpoint, rather than that of nations or political parties: it is a civil service with attitude. As the organisation most closely associated with the European Union, particularly under the expansionist Jacques Delors, it has been an easy target for criticism. And as enthusiasm for new initiatives has waned, so morale in the Commission has slipped, and it has lost its sense of direction.

The Commission's heyday followed the introduction of the single market programme in 1987. A huge mass of legislation poured out of the curious star- shaped Berlaymont building, directives affecting everything from cuttlefish to customs duties. During the late Eighties, it attracted vastly increased attention from business, government, journalists and lobbyists. But it also made enemies, as it sought to regulate, harmonise and standardise Europe into a federal future. The epic clashes between Mr Delors and Margaret Thatcher epitomised the era of the Commission's ascendancy, of Up Yours Delors and the Iron Lady.

Maastricht was, in many respects, a reversal for the Commission. The treaty specified areas that it was forbidden to enter - or rather, where it had to mind its manners if it did. Subsidiarity held that action should be taken at the most appropriate level, an idea intended by Britain to keep policy out of the hands of Brussels wherever possible. Maastricht seems to have heralded an era when policy is renationalised, taken back by the member states.

A Commission with only two years of life (as against the normal five), which the current transitional body has, always risked being a lame duck. But the problems of economic crisis, the political upsets that nearly derailed the Maastricht treaty and damaging arguments over trade have forced the Commission to keep a low profile.

Political misjudgement has also scarred it. Even some of Mr Delors' allies believe he misjudged the mood at Maastricht, and many accuse him of interfering in the Gatt negotiations at a crucial stage last year.

His latest initiative may have begun to reverse the tide. Mr Delors' 200-page White Paper on growth, employment and trade was commended by all the summit leaders, and will now become an action plan, a strategy for reversing economic decline. Mr Delors left the summit saying he was delighted; his staff seemed jubilant.

The significance of the paper will extend much further than this summit, this year, even this Commission. The Delors plan is evidence that the Commission does not want to be simply a passive onlooker in the wave of change that is sweeping Europe. It is a statement that the next five years will define the future of the Commission, and of the Union, in terms of its economic success, and how people benefit from that. Beyond that, it is an endorsement of change - perhaps even radical change - in the way the Commission plays its role.

A re-examination of that role is long overdue. The Commission is moving in strange territory, where many of the old landmarks are gone. Its main role is increasingly to regulate the single market, playing the referee rather than scoring goals. But this conflicts with the role with which it is formally charged: to be the agency that takes the Union forward.

The Delors' White Paper looks at initiatives in social policy, infrastructure, industry, research and development. But its approach differs from the one that the Commission adopted in the run-up to the single market. It is more about enabling action than commanding it. There is a strong role for the private sector, and for national and regional governments. The Commission, in this document, has apparently taken to heart the principle of subsidiarity.

Mr Delors, who has presided over the institution since 1985, has been a remarkable presence; a man who, even his enemies concede, has brains and determination. Whoever succeeds him will have a tough act to follow. They take on a heavy responsibility: to find a new place for the Commission, a new way of turning legal powers into political influence, and a new agenda. It is more than likely that they will find themselves turning to the Delors paper - for a strategy as much as for the individual recommendations.

Above all, if the economic decline that the White Paper addresses is not reversed, it is highly unlikely that the jaded appetite for European integration will be whetted even slightly. The Union would slide into irrelevance, to join the stack of schemes for European co-operation that are already in the dustbin; the Commission would become just another backwater. A lot rides on those 200 pages.

At the end of the next president's term in 1999, he or she will supervise moving the Commission, currently in diaspora throughout Brussels, back into its old headquarters, by then renovated and redecorated. What has still to be decided is what type of animal returns to the Berlaymont: a lion or a lamb.

(Photograph omitted)