Wasting no time, the leaders of the 15 members of the European Union last week nominated former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to be the new president of the European Commission. Mr. Prodi replaces Mr. Jacques San
ter, who resigned March 15 along with the 19 other commission
ers after an independent report slammed the commission for serious mismanagement and fraud. On paper, Mr. Prodi is the right man for the job. Success will depend on more than his ef
forts, however. The commission’s shortcomings reflect indi
vidual flaws and institutional failures. For all the complaints about its performance, it is still unclear whether EU member states are prepared to remedy those defects.

Mr. Prodi’s nomination came as no surprise: He was the front-runner from the time Mr. Santer’s resignation was imminent. His credentials are impressive. For 28 months he headed a center-left coalition government that included communists. During that period, he delivered what many people thought was impossible: He righted the Italian economy, reducing the government deficit from 6.7 percent of GDP to 3 percent and tamed inflation. His efforts allowed Italy to meet the tough criteria for European Monetary Union when it went into effect Jan. 1 this year.

A technocrat, Mr. Prodi also has a reputation as a reformer who carried out some big privatizations during his tenure. Just as important are the managerial skills that allowed him to keep his fractious coalition together for nearly two and a half years, making it the second-longest lived government in Italy’s postwar history.

If confirmed, Mr. Prodi will need every one of his talents to restore confidence in the commission, which has been badly discredited by the panel report. While some of the commissioners have performed their jobs admirably, others have not. The report by five independent auditors identified a culture that used the idea of collective responsibility to shield individual commissioners from scrutiny and allowed fraud and cronyism to persist. While the charges are true and must be remedied if the commission is to function effectively in the future, there are fundamental issues that extend far beyond the president’s purview. Indeed, Mr. Santer, Mr. Prodi’s recently resigned and much maligned predecessor, was chosen for the post precisely because he was viewed as less aggressive and less concerned with empire building than his predecessor, Mr. Jacques Delors. One lesson for European leaders: Be careful what you wish for.

Mr. Prodi will have help. The process of reform is already under way. The commission adopted a code of conduct for its members and other high officials. The chief problem is that the political will on the part of member governments to hold commissioners to those standards is lacking. It does not help when outrage over charges of financial mismanagement comes from the European Parliament, which is no slouch when it comes to spending money itself. And critics rightly point out that 80 percent of the EU $92 billion budget is managed by member governments and not the commission. Finally, since commissioners are ultimately responsible to the countries that appointed them, the real failure of oversight is to be found in EU capitals.

The message is clear. Mr. Prodi is bound to fail without a commitment on the part of EU members to demand more from their European representatives and delegates. The burden falls on the shoulders of voters and politicians alike. Last week’s EU summit in Berlin offers little reason for optimism.

Despite high hopes for substantive budgetary reform, the summit yielded only incremental changes. The strict spending freeze that some countries had urged on the EU was rejected; agricultural reforms were either watered down or delayed. Optimists point out that the budget is under the ceiling and that this is the first time in EU history that the spending trend was capped. Most leaders will proclaim victory to their constituents, but the outcome is, at best, a base upon which the EU can build.

For Mr. Prodi, the question is when that process can begin. He was elected with dispatch, but it may be some time before he takes office. He cannot assume his post until the new commission is approved by the European Parliament. Unfortunately, the Parliament is scheduled to disband in May for elections that will be held in June. There is virtually no chance that new commissioners can be appointed in time for screening by the Parliament before it adjourns. Once the election is held, all sorts of procedural matters must be taken up before the legislature can turn to the commission. Mr. Prodi may end up waiting until September before he takes command. Europe does not have that much time to lose.

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