As You Were: Reform Slips Through the European Commission's Fingers

The appointment of Prodi as the new commission head practically guarantees business as usual.
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After a corruption scandal forced the resignation earlier this month of the entire European Commission -- the powerful Brussels-based executive of the European Union -- it was natural to expect that the Continent's leaders would act intelligently and swiftly to deal with the mess.

They had the perfect opportunity to start this at an important summit in Berlin for EU heads of state last weekend. Unfortunately, everything that was said there indicates that Europe will carry on as before.

On the suggestion of

Jacques Chirac

, the assembled leaders agreed to hold another summit on April 14 to hack out plans for what the French president termed "a modernized, more efficient and more transparent commission." One important act they did accomplish was to select a new head for the commission: They unanimously chose former Italian Prime Minister

Romano Prodi

.

But investors hoping for stability within the EU ought not get their hopes up, as the prospects are slim for what U.K. Prime Minister

Tony Blair

has called "root and branch reform" of the commission.

Why the skepticism? Partly because the most ardent proponents of radical reform have not felt it necessary to act until now. Their late conversion to the anticorruption cause looks cynical. Many of the leaders in Berlin effectively tried to sweep the sleaze allegations against the commission under the carpet in January by pressuring their countries' delegations in the

European Parliament

not to vote for a no-confidence motion against the commission based on the corruption charges.

Moreover, a new push for "reform" is not necessarily a good thing.

Europe has been in a state of permanent institutional turmoil since the mid-1980s. In 1986, 1993 and 1997, three new key treaties were signed, all of which centralized power in Brussels and made the structures of the EU even more mind-numbingly complex.

In 1990, the EU expanded thanks to German reunification, so the institutions changed again. In 1992, the

Exchange Rate Mechanism

, then the central monetary institution of the EU, was radically restructured.

In 1995, three new member states were admitted. And, in 1999, a major new institution, the new

European Central Bank

, started its operations. If, as the Germans have suggested, the ball starts rolling in June toward yet another big treaty to be signed in 2001, Europe will have been a permanent construction site for over 15 years.

Furthermore, the suggestions being bandied around now show a worrying ignorance of the internal logic of the European institutions. Many have called for the commission to be made more accountable, and Blair has suggested appointing a cabinet minister for Europe who would answer for the commission's work to the U.K. Parliament.

These are the politics of the sound bite at their most dangerously superficial level.

True accountability can exist only where there is true control. But it is the very cornerstone of the entire European construction that the commission is

independent

of national governments.

There are good reasons for this. The intention is precisely to prevent the European institutions from becoming the plaything of Europe's member states -- especially the most powerful -- and to force member states to adhere to the promises they make when signing treaties.

The independence of the commission is also necessary to bolster its role as the policeman of the member states. The commission ensures that European laws are respected and fines member states if they fail to implement single-market legislation or award illicit state subsidies to their industries.

In addition, the commission also runs European antitrust policy. In a continent where the old idea of "national champions" or "European champions" is alive and well, it is important to have a strong and independent commission in order to resist such ideas.

It would therefore make matters worse if the commission were to be brought under the control of national governments. Far too much power is already wielded in the EU today by national governments and bureaucracies acting in collusion with the commission -- and not enough by legislatures.

If the commission could not even enforce the law in Europe, then the Continent would simply be run by its princes, colluding with each another against their respective peoples.

Unfortunately, there could be no clearer signal that everything will continue as before than the appointment of Prodi as the new commission president. Prodi is the purest product of the European political class that has been pushing for more European integration for years. When the news of his appointment broke, he mouthed exactly what everyone else has been mouthing for years: an extension of the use of the majority voting within the Council of Ministers, the transfer of yet more sovereignty to Brussels and the harmonization of taxes.

Plus ca change...

John Laughland is a commentator on European political and economic affairs. He has written for several British national dailies and published two books, The Death of Politics: France Under Mitterand and, most recently, The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea.