Romano Prodi

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By His smile is self-deprecating, his manner engagingly unpolished, his energy and curiosity palpable. At the very least, Romano Prodi has lent a genial visage to that often unloved institution, the European Commission. He has mounted his beloved bicycle and pedaled to work, offering Europeans a more approachable figure than his brittle predecessor, Jacques Santer. He has launched an informal breakfast where his co-commissioners can chat before their regular Wednesday morning meetings, and had them all out with spouses in the evening. One close colleague notes in amazement that he has even spotted the new President of the Commission reading a novel.

Appearances matter in politics, but substance has to follow, and any judgment is risky after only 100 days in office. But Prodi, 60, presides over a European executive that seems punchily ambitious rather than depleted, demoralized and defensive. Just 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union has the potential of finally resolving Europe's tragic division as it prepares for the addition of up to 13 new members in the coming years. "We can and will succeed in creating a unified, prosperous, democratic Europe where citizens can live in peace and freedom," Prodi told the European Parliament last month.

The European Union has had a year of mixed fortunes, to say the least. It opened gloriously with the successful launching of the euro, the culmination of years of planning at the Commission and a linchpin in the vision of a truly integrated European economy. But the fireworks at the start of the new currency--which despite an almost 15% loss of value since then now denominates the world's largest government bond market--couldn't disguise mounting disquiet in Brussels. In December 1998 the European Parliament, angered by the Commission's cavalier attitude toward both bookkeeping and parliamentary relations, refused to sign off on the Commission's accounts because of suspected fraud and mismanagement. The coup de grace came last March when a committee of independent experts issued its damning if overwrought judgment: "It is becoming difficult to find anyone [at the Commission] who has even the slightest sense of responsibility."

And so the Commission resigned, en masse. Within a week the leaders of the 15 member states had settled on Prodi as the miracle worker the Commission so badly needed. The dismal turnout for last June's European elections put paid to the notion that the European Parliament had emerged triumphant from the showdown in Brussels. "Do less, but do it well" had been Santer's credo. In the event, even that grimly modest goal had proved too lofty for the Commission. Prodi certainly has not yet rehabilitated the European Commission in his first 100 days, nor will he perhaps ever succeed in making it an efficient--let alone popular--institution. Brussels is still a bureaucratic miasma. "This is a place where it's normal for a simple spending procedure to require 20 signatures," groans one top aide. But Prodi has set a few markers that show he is not merely a man for smiling.

In June, recalcitrant European Parliamentarians suggested that they would elect his team only on probation until the end of the year. Prodi's firm response--grant a full term or look for someone else--forced a parliamentary climb-down. He proved equally resolute in late September when the Commission announced it would no longer allow member states to "flag" key positions at the top of the Commission's bureaucracy. His fellow commissioners now occupy the same buildings as their bureaucrats, and all have pledged to tender their resignations upon Prodi's demand. He has also shouldered aside the common practice of allowing commissioners to people their powerful cabinets with compatriots: Prodi's own private office of nine draws from seven different countries.

On the policy front, too, Prodi's aim seems loftier than Santer's. At the recent European Council meeting of heads of government in Finland, member states signed off on Prodi's promise to have the Union ready by 2002 to accept new members--providing they meet the highly detailed and far-reaching criteria for membership. Turkey is now formally on the list as a candidate, assuaging a slight delivered two years ago when it was spurned. And though the Commission has scant power in the realm of military affairs, it has helped lead the member states toward developing a security capability that could allow the E.U. to ease away from its increasingly uncomfortable dependence on the United States.

In Kosovo, it is still uncertain whether the E.U. can meet the challenge of reconstructing the province, and indeed the entire Balkan region. Major battles with national governments over a European food safety agency have already been prefigured in the French-British spat over British beef. And as loudly as every member state intones the mantra that Europe needs a strong and efficient Commission, next year's Intergovernmental Conference on recasting the E.U.'s institutions to prepare for much broader membership is sure to be marked by the fierce defense of national interests.

The Commission is still far from being the "European government" Prodi would like to claim it is. But under Prodi, the Commission seems likely to regain some of the panache--if not the overweening ambition--it had under the presidency of Jacques Delors, who launched the single market and set the course for monetary union. If Prodi can succeed by the end of his term in 2005 in bringing Central and Eastern Europe into the Union, he'll earn a place on the roster of historic Europeans. He is not there yet, but he has a golden chance.