Prodi defies harshest critics of his EU presidency and says he is now delivering and will complete his term of office

 

Romano Prodi is halfway through his term as President of the EU Commission. Yesterday, over breakfast with Denis Staunton, he assessed his progress against some choppy political currents

After 2½ years as President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi has become accustomed to choppy political waters and harsh media criticism. But even by his own turbulent standards, the past month has been unusually stormy.

First there was a row about reforming the EU's Common Fisheries Policy during which one of the two Spanish Commissioners, Loyola de Palacio, was accused of breaching her oath of office by taking instructions from Madrid. When the Commission's top fisheries official was moved abruptly from his post, Mr Prodi was suspected of bowing to pressure from the Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar.

Then came Mr Prodi's submission to the Convention on the Future of Europe, which called for sweeping new powers for the Commission, including responsibility for European foreign and defence policy. The European media greeted the submission with derision and member-state governments whispered that Mr Prodi's demands were outlandish and out of touch with reality.

To make matters worse, it emerged last week that the External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, had opposed the foreign policy section of the submission and warned Mr Prodi that by making unrealistic demands he risked getting a poorer deal for the Commission.

If Mr Prodi has been shaken by these blows, he showed little sign of it as he munched his way through a breakfast of cold ham and cheese at the Commission's headquarters in Brussels yesterday morning. Instead of dwelling on his recent woes, the President wanted to talk about his Commission's achievements as it passes the half-way stage of its five-year term.

"Don't forget the condition of the Commission when I arrived here. I don't like to mention this but I hope you remember that. There were doubts about the future of the Commission. Now we are delivering," he said.

Mr Prodi came to Brussels after his predecessor, Jacques Santer, and his entire Commission resigned in a welter of allegations of corruption and nepotism. The Italian professor turned politician promised to "close the gap between rhetoric and reality in Europe" and to make real improvements to the lives of European citizens.

He believes he has delivered on many of these promises and cites a number of concrete examples. Phone calls are cheaper because of telecommunications liberalisation. Food is safer because of new, agreed standards. Workers have the right to information and consultation on business decisions that affect their jobs.

Closer co-operation between EU police forces should make citizens safer from crime, and the Commission is confident that an EU-wide policy on asylum and immigration will be agreed soon. At the World Trade Organisation conference in Doha the Commission helped to launch a new trade round on terms favourable to EU interests. And the EU announced this year that it would increase its development assistance to the Third World by €18 billion between now and 2006.

All these achievements are important, and Mr Prodi is justified in taking pride in them. But he acknowledges that the most important aim of his Commission - to introduce up to 10 new member-states into the EU - remains uncertain.

"I don't know if it will be 10 but I hope so. I still hope so. We are working day by day on this goal and I don't see it as impossible," he said.

There are a number of potential obstacles to enlargement, the most obvious of which concerns the readiness of candidate countries to join. A second Irish No to Nice is likely to delay the process, but factors have emerged in recent months that could derail it altogether.

The recent election of right-wing governments in a number of member-states has swelled the ranks of those believed to be covertly opposed to enlargement, some of which are likely to seize any opportunity to postpone it, perhaps indefinitely. Meanwhile, the most ardent supporters of enlargement, Britain and Germany, are leading a group of countries that is blocking the agreement of a common EU negotiating position on agriculture because they oppose the extension of direct payments to farmers in central and eastern Europe.

Mr Prodi was clearly stung by the hostile response to his submission to the Convention but he insists that the Commission was right to make a coherent plea for a supra-national Europe.

"If the Commission does not indicate what a supra-national Europe is, I don't know who would indicate that. If I start from a low level, you would correctly write that the Commission has no idea of what its role should be in the future."

Since he arrived in Brussels, Mr Prodi has had a number of high-profile run-ins with EU leaders, including a stand-up row with French President Jacques Chirac at Nice and more dignified disagreements with Germany's Gerhard Schröder and Britain's Tony Blair. But he rejects the suggestion that these disputes reflect badly on his Commission.

"Dissenting views between the Commission and member-states are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign that I am doing my job," he said.

Mr Prodi describes that as defending the general interests of the EU and he insists that, despite the bad press he has received, history will prove him right. It is this absolute confidence in the coherence of his strategy for Europe that lies at the heart of his determination to defy his critics and complete his full term. "We must go on as we are. Some day we will be recognised."

Denis Staunton is European Correspondent of The Irish Times