Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, You Can Leave

Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, You Can Leave

Article excerpt

IT is not easy being the most powerful bureaucrat in the world, and Romano Prodi is having a tough time of it. The French press is speculating avidly about his demise. His juniors, officials in the 13,000-strong EU Commission, are briefing against him. In his desperation, he has been driven to shift some of Brussels' most long-serving apparatchiks, with consequent vituperation. And, as the hostility builds, his friends in the EU capitals are melting away, leaving only Tony Blair as a firm supporter.

Curiously enough, Mr Prodi's critics seem unable to hang their doubts on anything specific. Some newspapers complain that he is as dictatorial as Jacques Delors, his illustrious predecessor; others that he is as ineffective as Jacques Santer. Some manage to accuse him of being both at once. The allegations are always insubstantive, unattributed, inchoate.

What seems to lie behind these briefings is a feeling that the president of the European Commission is, of all things, too `Anglo-Saxon'. An alumnus of the LSE, he has lectured at Harvard and Stanford. While his English is excellent, his French can be wince-making. He is, by Brussels standards, a free marketeer, and recently he caused a minor scandal by moving a number of Francophone officials and replacing some of them - choc! horreur! - with Britons.

The criticism is plainly taking its toll on Prodi. When I saw him in Strasbourg last week, he looked worn-out. A sore throat had reduced his voice to a quack, and he seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open. But his suit was dapper and his courtesy never flagged - although both his tailoring and his manners would, perhaps, strike his more paranoid critics as rather too British.

We met in Mr Prodi's parliamentary office, a suitably imperial suite set aside for the president's monthly visits to Strasbourg. The Commission president was accompanied by David O'Sullivan, an Irishman, who is to be the next Commission secretary-general. This appointment is viewed by the Prodi-bashers as further evidence of an Anglo-Saxon takeover. Never mind all those Irish songs about biffing the Saxon; in Brussels, Anglo-Saxon is more a state of mind than an ethnic label. So, Mr Prodi, I began, this British plot: is there one?

`I think this is silly,' he says, and goes on to explain his profound belief in the FrancoGerman axis. `Europe depends on a strong engagement by France and Germany.' So, did he agree with Joschka Fischer, who recently called for these two states to forge ahead to a federal European government?

`Yes. He sets out a lot of different options. But the question of how you arrive there is still open. At least the debate on Europe is here again. We have lifted it out of the small daily problems.'

One of the charges sometimes laid against Mr Prodi is that he is a bit short on the vision thing. Where, I wondered, did the president see the EU going in the end?

`First of all you have to ask: "Why Europe?" ' All right then: why Europe? `It's simple: 50 years of European peace. We have engaged in building an enormous new structure of power.' Mr Prodi goes on to sketch a vision of a world divided into regional blocs. China might lead one such camp. Brazil, who knows, might lead another. If the European countries don't stick together, they will fall separately.

Yes, but why Europe? Surely there are other liberal democracies that are just as much a part of the Western world. What do Europeans all have in common with each other that they don't have in common with, say, Chileans or New Zealanders?

`History. Geography. Mixing. To put it in an extreme form, a relationship with Germany is instrumental for peace; a union with Argentina is not.' Mr Prodi then expatiated for a while on the benefits of the Atlantic alliance. `Peace depends on strong bilateral relations between America and Europe,' he concluded. `There is no feeling of revanche against the United States. But we must have a comparable capacity. …

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