The EC's President Prodi, Human Mortadella

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Unusually for a famous native of Bologna, Prodi's not a Communist. Unusually for a Christian Democrat, he's both a Christian and a democrat. But what made Prodi a logical choice for Europe's presidency is that he seems constitutionally incapable of lying. This straight shooting is no small thing in a European Commission that's brazenly designed to function undemocratically. One of Prodi's predecessors on the commission, the Mitterrand protegee Edith Cresson, ran her office so crookedly that an investigation turned up research-and-development contracts for her dentist.

    Prodi, by contrast, is wide open. For example: Even though he's never been a socialist, his coalition was made up of left-wing reformists (with a few ex-Commies thrown in). So Prodi always gets lumped in with Clinton and Blair's "Third Way." When asked whether there was anything concrete about the "Third Way" Prodi replied, "No. For me it was just a way to get to talk to Americans about things." He speaks about (eventually) shelling out money to rebuild Serbia.

    Although he taught at Harvard, Prodi's spoken English is not up to conceptual heavy lifting, so he falls into this agitated kind of conversation whereby he tries to communicate through vibes, rather like the Italians you see in Sinatra movies or Prince spaghetti commercials. He'll typically reply to a question by saying, "It's..."?then smiling, and then agitating his hands frantically as if he's miming shaking a martini?"You see?"

    He is, in the best sense, a political softie. That he jiggles like a man who's no stranger to the Second Helping reinforces the image. His opponent, the Communist Giuliano Ferrara, once dismissed Prodi as "mortadella with a human face."

    Wry Baloney But in politics, behind every mortadella stands a hard salami. In Prodi's case, that would be his longtime aide, the Uruguay-born Italian Ricardo Franco Levi. At lunch, Levi described the "rapid reaction" force he's set up to trash "inaccurate" press coverage of Prodi and the European Commission in general. It makes Joe Lockhart look milquetoastian. Hundreds of journos crowd into the half-hour press briefings that either Levi or his deputy gives every noon. It's a weird show: There are generally eight or nine of Levi's Mini-Me's, each of them representing a ministry, standing huddled on one of the side aisles, rather like L.A. Mexicans waiting for work outside a 7-Eleven at 6 o'clock in the morning. As questions arise touching on their particular areas of expertise, they get beckoned to the podium. And they begin with a Mao-style trashing?by name?of the articles that have pissed off their various ministries. The day I was there it was mostly foreign policy stuff, like: Chris Patten has not said that Russia represents the greatest threat to stability in Europe, the first Mini-Levi began. Has! Not! Said! A Danish paper reported that. What he said was... And then: Recently, another report in the AP said that Yasir Arafat would visit Brussels. If you read carefully the speech [by Patten], he has not announced that.

    How Euro: "If my boss didn't say it happened, it didn't happen." This is just the kind of thing any American journalist hates. Differently put, it's evidence of a frustrating, French-style collusion between the press and pols. It's not that Jean-Jacques Politique goes up to Jean-Louis Journaliste and offers him 10 thousand francs if he'll say nice things. It's that all politicians insist that stump oratory and press releases are the only legitimate raw material of political journalism, and that behind-the-scenes conversations, off-the-record interviews and leaked documents are out of bounds, "speculative." Eventually, after repeated batterings at press conferences like these, the journos go along.

    The two big results are (1) consolidation of opaque bureaucracies in which, as P.J. O'Rourke once put it, "The last one awake gets to spend all the money," and (2) mind-boggling battles over nugatory matters. One of the day's high points came when some Frenchman asked a question about the attitude of the Moroccan Ministry of Fisheries toward some negligible mackerel-quota adjustment. But the room went into an uproar when the South Africa Wines and Distilled Spirits Act came up. Suddenly journalists were screaming across the room at one another about whether a previous negotiating deadline of Sept. 27 was a hard-and-fast "terminus," or whether there was an alternative terminus on Oct. 11.

    Inquiring minds seemed to want to know. So a suave-looking English fellow from Levi's team stepped to the mic to say (in French) something like, "The terminus will be terminated when we reach termination." And then gave a corner-of-the-mouth smile as if to congratulate himself on his Gallic wit. In other words, the place runs rather like the Marseilles mayor's office must have run in around 1926.

    Finn de Siècle Not that there aren't people who want to run the EC differently. The most interesting fellow in Brussels is probably the Finnish commissioner Erkki Antero Liikanen, who's something of a high-tech maniac, and may be the only person at the EU who has a clear-cut (and plausible) game plan under which Europe can catch up with the U.S. in the high-tech sector. The key is mobile telephones. Europe is as far ahead of the U.S. in mobile communications as the U.S. is over Europe in software. "Whether Europe is able to catch up with the United States," Liikanen says, "depends on whether people are going to feel they need the Internet in their pocket or whether they'll be content to be tied to their office or home to get online. I think they'll want it in their pocket."

    They certainly will if they've ever stayed in a German hotel, where calls to the U.S. can run seven dollars a minute. Last week in Munich, I called my wife and spoke for a few minutes. Then I checked my messages. There was a call from an old friend who's working on the Bush campaign and wanted to tell me something about Gore. Of course, when I called him back, I couldn't let the opportunity pass to tell him how transparently corrupt I found his candidate's recent attempts to distance himself from the "extremists" in the Republican House. After that, we spoke for 20 minutes. The next morning I was handed a bill for $300 worth of phone calls.

    When I got on the bus I must have looked like I'd been flogged. I sat next to a friend from a major American daily paper who said, "That's nothing." He told a story about traveling in Germany when he was first hired. He came downstairs to pay his 80-dollar room bill and was given one for seven hundred and eighty dollars. Even worse: Back then, nobody?but nobody?in Germany accepted foreign credit cards. So he had to (a) shell out all the cash he'd brought to last him the next two weeks, and (b) wander around the lobby borrowing money from his journalistic colleagues, and (c) fax his newspaper in Texas, for which he'd been working for all of two days, and tell them: "I'm flat busted in Europe. Wire me money."

    Next time, I'll rent a cellphone. I don't care how Eurotrash it makes me look. Hell, I'd wear a beret for that kind of money.