by RAY FLEMING
TALK about déjà vu! When Tony Blair sits down at the European Union summit later this week to discuss with his colleagues who should be appointed as President of the European Commission, he will find it difficult not to wonder whether he has taken on the persona of John Major in the early 1990s. At that time, faced with the same decision, Mr Major made very clear his opposition to the former Belgian prime minister Jean Luc Dehaene who enjoyed wide support among others at the table; he effectively vetoed Mr Dehaene's appointment because of his supposed federalist inclinations. Instead, in a compromise, the Commission got Jacques Santer of Luxembourg, described by Mr Major as “the right man in the right place at the right time” who, however made a complete hash of the job and left it in ignominy.

Now the leading candidate for President is again a Belgian, Guy Verhofstadt, currently his country's prime minister. And, again, Britain has reservations because, again, M.Verhofstadt is a federalist. He is, however, supported by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain and Mr Blair will this time not be able to veto a majority decision because the rules have been changed since Mr Major stood his ground. So has Mr Blair a candidate to put forward? Indeed he has, and it is none other than Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg! This brings matters full circle and, if he is not careful, Mr Blair will be talking of “the right man in the right place at the right time”. Mr Junker has spent most of the past week denying that he is a candidate or that he would accept the appointment if it were offered to him.

THE job of President of the European Commission is an extremely important one. He is is in charge of the totality of the administrative operations of the EU as approved by the Council of Ministers of the member states and by the elected European Parliament. Insofar as a single person can be identified as representing and symbolising the European Union it is the President of the European Commission. The “Presidency” of the Council of Ministers rotates every six months among member states (although this may change if the Constitution is adopted) and the role of the President of the European Parliament, although growing in influence, is not prominent in the public mind. It is thus very clear that the past ten years under, first, Jacques Santer and then Romano Prodi have been disastrous for the image and reputation of the European Union and it cannot be excluded that this was in part responsible for the abject voting last Sunday. It was perhaps unreasonable to expect much of Santer but Prodi was a seasoned Italian centre-left politician who had served as prime minister for two years until unseated by Silvio Berlusconi.

Far from cleaning up the mess left by Santer, Prodi has added to it. It is true that he appointed some very capable Commissioners in various sectors, most of whom are now departing, but as President he has failed to grasp the scandal of the Commission's accounting system and, astonishingly, has not understood that as President of the Commission he could not properly engage in Italian politics with an eye on the upcoming election there. I cannot think of a single statement made by Prodi which captured the achievement of the EU thus far and articulated its prospects for the future. Someone in the whole EU complex should be capable of doing this and it must fall to the President since no one else has his tenure of office. I cannot see any of the candidates whose names will be discussed this week meeting this requirement - unless, of course, it were to be Tony Blair himself.

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