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Europe

Opinion: Absent, Awkward, Aimless

Outgoing EU Commission President Romano Prodi gave his last speech on Monday. While the Italian can look back on some major successes, he has been a mediocre and weak leader, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

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Some say Prodi didn't deliver a stellar performance

During the last months of his term in office, Prodi sometimes seemed strangely absent, awkward and aimless: The moderate, leftist politician, who came to Brussels in 1999 after resigning as Italian premier, has for a long time been bidding his internal farewell. Prodi is looking forward to a new challenge in 2006: taking his old job from his arch-rival, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Prodi is frustrated as he leaves his position at the EU's steering wheel, especially since the bloc's heads of state and government torpedoed his ambitious Lisbon Agenda.

An economics professor by trade, Prodi had hoped for the EU to catch up with US economic and innovative strength by the end of the decade. But national governments often blocked plans to shift decisions about economic policy to Brussels. Prodi especially saw German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as a brakesman.

Technocrat vs. president

Schröder und Prodi bei einem Bier

Prodi (left) and Schröder during a visit to Verona in August 2003

Schröder himself wanted to see a technocrat in the EU's top position -- someone who could competently lead the union's 17,000 civil servants. But Prodi didn't just see himself as an administrative director but also as a political president who stimulates discussions and helps shape the EU's future direction. He didn't live up to this role.

Holding the rotating EU presidency in 1999, Schröder had actually helped to bring Prodi into office. It was a fundamental miscalculation: While Prodi had spent three years preparing Italy for the euro with harsh spending cuts, he failed to show similar leadership qualities after his move to Brussels.

In a 2000 keynote speech, Prodi already lamented the slow pace at which the then 15 governments were moving, as well as the fact that member states often made decisions without considering the views of the European Commission. He tried several times to regain power, but never really managed to do so.

Shared success

Romano Prodi und Günter Verheugen EU Türkei

Prodi and Verheugen on Oct. 6, the day the commission recommended membership talks with Turkey

The Italian's time in Brussels did include several highlights -- first and foremost the successful EU enlargement in May as well as the recommendation to commence membership negotiations with Turkey. In both cases, however, Prodi owes a great debt to one of his strongest commissioners, Germany's Günter Verheugen (photo).

The EU's far-reaching agricultural reform was also spearheaded by an able commissioner -- Austria's Franz Fischler -- and not Prodi himself. The introduction of the euro equally became a success story, but its foundations had been laid long before Prodi's tenure.

Prodi's commission has bravely defended the euro zone's Growth and Stability Pact and even won cases before the European Court of Justice. But in the end, Brussels had to give in to the political will of the union's finance ministers. In 2002, Prodi stabbed his own monetary commissioner in the back by saying that the pact was inflexible and therefore "stupid."

Following Jacques Santer, who had been forced to resign after financial and corruption scandals, Prodi tried to return the commission to order. He pushed through a number of institutional reforms and created OLAF, the EU body now in charge of fighting corruption.

EU Verfassung Prodi und Berlusconi

Prodi hopes to unseat his arch-rival, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in national elections in 2006.

All of this still hasn't made the bloc's books completely transparent; That will hopefully change with the new commission, where the finance and financial control dossiers will be handled separately by two commissioners.

Comeback in 2006?

The European commission, which has increasingly received more power, has suggested a record number of laws over the last five years. The group dared much when it came to questions of monopoly and internal competition. While some complain about over-regulation, consumers profited. To take an example, Prodi refused to back down in the matter of BSE-infected meat and won the fight against states that had argued for laxer rules.

The 65-year-old is now hoping to return to the circle of heads of state, many of whom often gave him the cold shoulder over the last few years. Italian voters will be the ones to decide whether he returns to national politics in 2006. In Brussels, however, people view this outgoing commission as a good one, with a mediocre, weak president at the helm.

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