Prodi’s landmark speech … in case you missed it

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Series Details Vol.7, No.42, 15.11.01, p2
Publication Date 15/11/2001
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Date: 15/11/01

By David Cronin, Political Correspondent

Luck has rarely been on Romano Prodi's side since he was appointed European Commission chief in 1999. This week it seemed to desert him completely.

Prodi's advisers went to considerable lengths to stress the importance of his 'state of the Union' speech in Bruges on Monday (12 November). Keen to secure maximum coverage, they circulated its key points to journalists at the weekend and on the day itself released embargoed copies of the final draft before its delivery. Photographs of the ex-Italian premier amid the regal splendour of the College of Europe were also made available.

Competing for column inches with the war in Afghanistan was an arduous task to begin with. But nobody could have foreseen the tragic plane crash in New York, which eclipsed all other news stories in the next day's media. Despite containing some important, if not terribly original, ideas about the EU's future, the Prodi declaration went largely ignored by the European press. The Financial Times, probably the daily most widely read by EU insiders, only saw fit to cover it on the bottom of page eight of its European edition. (Admittedly, it had previewed it the day before, also on page eight). Some French papers did not cover it all in their Tuesday editions.

As a result, even some people who follow Prodi's pronouncements religiously did not know he had made the speech. "What was it about?" asked one leading researcher on EU politics, when contacted by European Voice. Intriguingly, the little coverage that there was either overlooked how Prodi had used the Bruges platform to refute the barrage of recent criticism which his leadership has garnered or only made a cursory reference to this point.

Prodi hit back at those commentators, who rarely write a sentence about his presidency that doesn't include the word 'weak', by contending he is a man of resolve and vision, unafraid to take unpopular decisions. "Even before I was formally installed, I told [the European] Parliament my priorities would be enlargement, institutional reform, development and social cohesion," he said. "And well before a consensus had formed around the approaches I was putting forward, I did not hesitate to court the criticism of governments and the press by calling for clear timetables for enlargement and a broader agenda for institutional reform."

He stressed he had defended the EU vigorously at testing times, insisting there should be no discrimination against small EU countries, even when some of the bigger states wished to treat Austria as a pariah after the far-right Freedom Party became part of its government.

And although his invitation (later rescinded) for Libya's notorious leader Muammer Gadaffi to visit Brussels last year has been cited as evidence that he is gaffe-prone, Prodi now contends that his efforts to keep "channels of communication open with difficult countries such as Iran and Libya" have been vindicated. "These are channels which many other European leaders have subsequently made use of, which today are proving precious in the construction of a solid alliance against terrorism."

But his most combative remarks concerned the EU's division of powers. Claiming that the Commission is working for change with "zeal, tenacity and competence", he said its "thoroughgoing internal reform" is the first of its kind in the EU executive's history and is indispensable for the European institutional system.

Attempting to lob the ball back into the court of his critics in EU governments and the European Parliament, he declared: "In all honesty, I cannot see any corresponding willingness in the other institutions to question their own operation before the bar of European public opinion and to reform wherever necessary."

He also castigated the Parliament and Council of Ministers for being slow in taking decisions on laws proposed by the Commission. "All too often these decisions are not forthcoming."

One controversial aspect of his speech which did make some headlines was his call for member states to devise a code of conduct for budgetary policies. This idea has been described as reminiscent of French suggestions that an "economic government" is needed for the eurozone.

His continued insistence on pushing for fiscal harmonisation is curious, given that the Commission's recent forays into the domain of national budgets have proven disastrous. Its recommended reprimand of Ireland - endorsed by EU finance ministers - for not adhering to the Union's broad economic guidelines has, for example, been cited as a reason for the rejection of the Nice Treaty by Irish voters.

The Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) was baffled by Prodi's call. Daniel Gros, an economics expert with the influential think-tank, pointed out that the EU's stability and growth pact already contains a code of conduct. "I fail to see why we need more in terms of mechanisms for fiscal policy, when we already have so much," he added. However, eurosceptic and Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde said he appreciated Prodi's logic: "If you create a single currency, then you need a single government to control it. That is the reason why I am opposed to a single currency." British Conservative Teresa Villiers described the Prodi plan as "the next step towards the creation of an economic government". She added: "As we always suspected, it shows that the euro is just a stepping stone towards a harmonised tax and spending policy."

Last week, Prodi promised he would not flinch from urging the same formal condemnation of the eurozone's biggest economies as that issued against Ireland should they not respect the Union's guidelines (Germany, France and Italy are all expected not to meet the budget deficit targets for 2001 and 2002 which they set themselves under the stability pact). "It hurt me to do this to a star pupil [Ireland]," Prodi told Germany's Taggespiegel. "But the European Commission and I will not shirk from also making recommendations to Germany or France or Italy if these countries cannot stick to the pact."

If Prodi does flex his muscles against the eurozone's most powerful members - including his native Italy - then perhaps some of his critics will cease calling him a weak leader. But that is a very big 'if'.

Report of European Commission President Romano Prodi's 'State of the Union' speech, Bruges, 12 November 2001.

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