Berlin, 25 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Billed as one of most important European Union meetings in decades, the EU's Berlin summit got underway yesterday with leaders of its 15 member nations making a critical decision on a new president for the Union's much-criticized Executive Commission.
The leaders' choice was former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi. He would replace Luxembourg's Jacques Santer, who resigned --together with his 19 commissioners -- last week amid charges of mismanagement and fraud in the EU's chief executive organ. The charges were initiated in the EU's popularly elected Parliament, which decided (March 23) to widen its investigation into alleged shady practices in the Commission, an appointed body.
The European Parliament must still approve Prodi's nomination before he can take office. EU diplomats in Berlin said yesterday that the leaders' decision on Prodi was taken quickly to allow the Parliament to confirm Prodi at its monthly plenary session early in April in Strasbourg.
Prodi's nomination was first agreed upon late last week during a meeting in Paris between German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. After the Franco-German accord was conveyed to the Italian government, Prodi then officially announced his candidacy. The other EU member nations later also agreed to the appointment.
The 59-year-old Prodi, in contrast to Santer, is considered a political heavyweight. Prodi built a continent-wide reputation for dealing with tough problems by transforming Italy's finances during his term as premier from 1996 to 1998. That allowed his country to qualify for the elite 11-nation club of founding nations for the new EU single currency, the euro, which was launched in January.
Prodi has never joined any of Italy's political parties. He has defined his political position as the Left wing of Italy's Christian Democrats. Prodi says he favors what he calls "moderated capitalism" and a "light government" that maintains its social-welfare obligations. He cites the philosopher and free-market proponent Karl Popper as one of the thinkers who has most influenced him.
Chancellor Schroeder, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, told a press conference that the summit's decision showed unity among EU leaders. He then called on the European Parliament to ratify the choice.
"It depends on the decision of the [European] parliament; the parliament is a sovereign body with a sovereign timetable, but from numerous conversations it seems in the first place clear that the decision that we have taken is in Europe's interest and therefore in parliament's interest as well; and secondly I have no indication that the parliament will not confirm [Prodi], but it is not my job to give the parliament deadlines..."
If Prodi is approved by Parliament next month, member-state governments would next, in cooperation with the new President, put forward their nominations for the other 19 commissioner posts. The Parliament would then vote on the entire new team in June, but the approval ballot would be taken by a new body elected in quadrennial voting earlier in the month.
Under the present EU system, the five most populous EU countries --Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain-- are entitled to two commissioners each. The other 10 smaller members have the right to one commissioner each.
Earlier, European Parliament President Jose Maria Gil-Robles told journalists that the Parliament is eager to press ahead with approval of a new commission president as soon as possible, even before the June legislative elections.
Speaking before the Prodi candidature was announced, Gil-Robles said the Parliament is n-o-t interested in an interim Commission or president, but wishes to see full-term appointments that will be acceptable to both the outgoing and incoming parliaments.
He said the man chosen to lead the commission should be a strong figure able to guide Europe forward, not one who would give into narrow national pressures.
In addition to moving to end the turmoil within the EU Commission, leaders at the Berlin summit are also discussing sweeping financial reforms necessary within the Union itself. The reforms are seen as a key step before the union can expand eastward.
Schroeder, in response to a question on whether EU leaders can reach agreement on the packet of EU reforms, known as Agenda 2000, expressed optimism:
"There lies ahead a difficult period of negotiations, but if these negotiations are conducted in the spirit of solidarity as demonstrated in the Prodi decision then we have a good chance to carry out the Agenda  negotiations in a similar way."
EU leaders were also focusing considerable attention on the crisis centering on Serbia's Kosovo province.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair spent part of the morning consulting with individual EU leaders about expected NATO air strikes on Serbia. A British spokesman said Blair met with French President Chirac and Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. All three, along with U.S. President Bill Clinton, are important backers of collective NATO action against Serbia. A British spokesman today stressed the unity of NATO, saying that there are 200 combat aircraft assembled in the strike region, from air forces as far apart as Norway and Spain.
For all its seriousness, the Berlin summit has not been without some unconscious elements of humor. The heads of state and government are meeting at a hotel right beside the gates of the famous Berlin zoo, at a metro stop called "the zoo garden." Major press conferences are being held at a cinema several hundred meters away where the featured film, an animated one, is "It's a Bug's Life." Situated between the two sites is a temporary international press center, where an ant-like horde of 3,000 journalists rushes backwards and forwards waving mobile phones over their heads like antennas.