"Is the E.U. Commission President a real leader or a figurehead? The next one will have to figure that out.
Prodi has been largely overshadowed by national leaders while Delors presided over a powerful Commission
Unlike most elections, the race to become European Commission President takes place behind closed doors. There's no real campaigning (just lots of backroom dealing) and only 25 people have a say — the heads of the E.U. member states. Usually, the best man for the job is defined as the candidate who's least offensive. It's a strange way to pick a top dog, but then again, the Commission presidency is a strange office.
The President is the guardian of E.U. treaties that he and his institution have no direct say in formulating; he's the E.U.'s highest executive authority yet his voice doesn't count for much without the support of the member states. And when the E.U. succeeds, national politicians rush in to take the credit. Now, with the expansion of the E.U. making consensus even harder to achieve, the job is becoming more thankless than ever.
That was spectacularly clear at the June 17 summit, when the Union's leaders failed to agree on the successor to Romano Prodi, whose term ends in October. As Time went to press, the national leaders appeared close to agreement on a compromise candidate, the mild-mannered Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso, 48. Barroso's support for the war in Iraq meant he had to overcome the reservations of the French and Spanish leaders, since deep differences still fester over Iraq.
The new constitutional treaty, which will face referendums in 10 states — including, it was announced recently, Spain and Portugal — isn't enough to set a clear direction for the E.U. In other words, if there was ever a time for strong leadership at the center, this is it. "If the Commission declines, the system won't work," says Jacques Delors, whose 1985-95 stint in Brussels set the gold standard for the Commission presidency. During his tenure, Delors set up the single market and took the first steps toward the common currency. "We need a strong [Commission] to run the European economy."
But the E.U.'s leaders didn't want another Jacques Delors — he would be far too tough-minded — and they clearly don't need another Romano Prodi, a poor communicator who battled to strengthen the Commission's role but ended up weakening it. Prodi's attention long ago strayed from the Union to domestic Italian politics and, partly for that reason, he ended up on a collision course with government leaders over economic policy and the architecture of the E.U.'s institutions.
Worse, Prodi had an unfortunate knack for miscommunication — even when he was right, as he arguably was when he called the euro-zone deficit limits "stupid." Perhaps his bigger problem was faltering support for the E.U. in the capitals of Europe. "It was a lot easier being Commission President when you had Mitterrand, Kohl and Andreotti pushing the Union from the capitals," sighs a top Prodi confidante.
Delors disagrees; after all, he had to contend with the doyenne of Euro-skeptics, Margaret Thatcher. He thinks his achievements had more to do with his approach than with the historical context. "The Commission should be of service to the governments and not try to be their equal," Delors says. "If [national leaders] don't question your loyalty, you can play the go-between and find solutions." If the President is unable to get a consensus among his team of commissioners, Delors says, the national governments tend to dismiss them as "a mere group of fonctionnaires."
That's pretty much the view from the big capitals right now. And who's complaining? Federalism is out and national sovereignty is in, as the constitutional agreement shows: foreign and tax policies, for example, remain subject to national vetoes. "The big players want a relatively nonpowerful, amenable Commission President that everyone can call a 'good European': whatever that means," says one European diplomat and former high Commission official.
Barroso would fit that bill. But if the constitutional treaty is ratified, the new nominee will have an important rival in Brussels beginning in 2009: the President of the Council, the Brussels representative of the member-state governments. The Council President will serve a renewable two-and-a-half-year term, rather than the current ineffectual six months. The job — the particulars of which will be established largely by the first person to hold it — is widely expected to further skew the balance of power away from the Commission and toward national governments. "That's the long game people are watching, not the Commission President," says the diplomat.
The short game matters, though. Delors ended up stronger than his German and French promoters had intended; Prodi perhaps somewhat weaker. Given the challenges ahead, the new compromise candidate — whether Barroso or another dark horse — will need to demonstrate a formidable set of skills and a very thick political skin of he wants to go down as more of a Delors than a Prodi.