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PARIS — In many respects, the main body of the European Union is the European Commission, the mass resignation of which was announced last week. The commission’s president and its 19 other members are appointed for five years by the European Council, which consists of the heads of state or of government of the 15 member states. The commissioners, who are supposed to act independently of their own countries’ governments, are responsible only collectively and only to the European Parliament. Never since the creation of the European Community in 1956 has a commission been overthrown. No wonder some of its members had developed a feeling of impunity, unavoidably leading to various abuses.

The commission is often described as the “executive” of the EU. In fact, it has no power to define its policies, which is a prerogative of the European Council, where all member states are represented on a theoretical basis of total equality. But the commission is in charge of enacting these policies through decisions called directives, which deal with a lot of practical regulations concerning food, as well as many services. The only limit to its power is that its budget has to be approved by the Parliament of the 15. This means that the commission needs to be headed by a prominent figure, someone able to impose his personal authority on all members and “sell” the body’s image both to the European Assembly and to the public. Until 1995, the commission’s various presidents — who are appointed by the council, with the Parliament’s approval, to five-year terms — broadly met these requirements. France’s former finance minister, Jacques Delors, a strong believer in Europe, was one of the most successful.

When Delors’ term ended five years ago, 14 of the 15 member states were willing to replace him with Belgian Premier Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had demonstrated his skills in the difficult art of appeasing tensions between the two communities of his country: the Dutch-speaking majority Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons. But Dehaene’s appointment was vetoed by the then British prime minister, John Major, who had inherited the anti-European feelings of his predecessor Margaret Thatcher and therefore didn’t want to see a “heavyweight” at the EU’s helm. Finally, a compromise candidate was chosen: Jacques Santer, previously prime minister of tiny Luxembourg, a man of good will, but lacking both vision and charisma.

Ironically, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is today the first to ask for a heavyweight to take over the vacated post. Everybody seems to agree on that, and the names of first-class leaders like former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, former Prime Ministers Romano Prodi of Italy or Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, and NATO Secretary Gen. Javier Solana, whose mandate expires at the end of the year, have been put forward as prospective candidates.

The task of the next president won’t be easy. The commission wouldn’t have resigned if its relationship with Parliament had not been seriously deteriorating for months. Moreover, the timing of this crisis was peculiarly unfortunate. The optimism surrounding the launching of the single currency earlier in the year has dissipated, and the euro’s value vis a vis the dollar has steadily declined. The 15 member states have not managed up to now to agree on a common agricultural policy, with the Germans wanting to spend less and the French farmers, facing a drop in prices — especially of pork — asking for increased subsidies. The Berlin summit scheduled for March 24-25 will have to concentrate on the financial issues, leaving aside the key point of the institutional changes that will be needed to allow formerly socialist countries to join the EU.

Since most EU member governments are socialist-led, one would have thought that their ideological convergence would facilitate the search for a compromise on this issue. But there are various brands of socialism, even within the German Social Democratic Party: The obvious rift between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his very leftwing finance minister and party head Oskar Lafontaine finally led to the latter’s resignation. Still, it would be premature to conclude that Schroeder is now sole master of the field; The left wing of his party, as well as the Greens, often criticize his stands, which are quite close ideologically to Blair’s. He has also retreated already on several important issues, including the retreatment of nuclear waste, which he had initially promised to give up.

As for his record as president of the EU, a job he holds for six months as of last Jan. 1, so far it has been no less disappointing. Clearly, Schroeder is not the decisive leader needed if the EU’s present crisis is to be swiftly overcome.

If people are not given the feeling, in the coming days or weeks, that this crisis has been surmounted, that the euro will fulfill its promise and that new members will be admitted within two or three years into a union worth the name, there is a risk that many voters will either abstain or vote for anti-EC candidates at the next European elections in June. Add the fact that Finland will chair the commission from July to January, and that its Social Democratic-led government lost ground in the March 21 general election, and the outlook for Europe could certainly be better.

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