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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May 2003, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Romano Prodi: European Commission
Jacques Delors and Romano Prodi
Jacques Delors has been a tough act for Romano Prodi to follow

Romano Prodi is a former Italian prime minister who was made president of the European Commission - the EU's executive branch - at a time of crisis in 1999.

The entire commission had just been dismissed in the wake of a corruption scandal, and Mr Prodi was the unanimous choice of the 15 EU member states. His appointment took just one hour.

He had been a very successful Italian prime minister, but the jury is still out on his performance as president of the commission.

I am committed to closing the gap between rhetoric and reality in Europe
Romano Prodi

He is widely judged to be a poor communicator, but the EU has developed rapidly since he arrived at the commission, introducing the euro and concluding negotiations on enlargement.

Mr Prodi has indicated that he would like to be invited to stay on in Brussels when his current term runs out next autumn, but it seems more likely that he will return to Italian politics.

His supporters there are already hoping he will spur the fragmented centre-left into mounting an effective challenge to the government of his arch-rival, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Contrast with Delors

It is Mr Prodi's misfortune always to have been compared in Brussels to his predecessor-but-one, Jacques Delors.

1939: Born, Reggio Emilia, Italy
1971-1999: Professor at Bologna University
1978-1979: Italy's minister for industry
1996-1999: Italian prime minister
1999: President of the European Commission

While Mr Delors is remembered as a charismatic man of vision, Mr Prodi is often regarded as a rambling professor.

Perhaps Mr Prodi himself sees the contrast rather differently: as a man of empty words versus a man of concrete deeds?

In February 2000, setting out the European Commission's agenda for the next 4-5 years, he said: "I am committed to closing the gap between rhetoric and reality in Europe. People want a Europe that can deliver the goods. This commission is committed to deliver."

Apart from delivering the euro and (nearly) enlargement, the Prodi commission has launched the convention that is now drafting an EU constitution, and will soon take over new EU-wide responsibilities in the fields of justice and home affairs.

As regards pop music, after the Beatles I'm pretty much lost
Romano Prodi

Mr Prodi and his team have also been present at the birth of the European Rapid Reaction Force, which for the first time gives the EU the military muscle to accompany its economic might.

So, while he has failed to inspire European leaders with his own federalist vision - including a common EU foreign policy, direct tax-raising powers and a European police force - the last four years in Brussels have been eventful by any standard.

Bologna sausage

Romano Prodi was born in September 1939 as the eighth in a family of nine children, seven of whom went on to be university lecturers.

Romano Prodi is an enthusiastic cyclist
Romano Prodi used to cycle to work in Bologna

He studied in Milan, London and Stanford before becoming professor of industrial policy in Bologna, the nearest city to his native Reggio Emilia, in 1971.

He identifies strongly with Bologna, and is known by his political enemies as "the Mortadella" after the rather bland sausage - baloney in American English - for which the city is famous.

His political career took off in the late 1970s when for six months he served as Italy's Ministry for Industry. Nearly 20 years later he led the first genuine centre-left government since the fall of fascism.

His main achievement was to get Italy into shape to join the euro by cutting spending and imposing a one-off "tax for Europe".

One moment of his earlier career came back into the spotlight this month when Mr Berlusconi told a court trying him on bribery charges that Mr Prodi, as head of a state-owned industrial holding company had negotiated to sell a the SME food company to an Italian tycoon at a knock-down price.

Mr Prodi issued a statement saying that the price had been set on the basis of an expert evaluation of a Milan professor - a man recently appointed by the Berlusconi government to head the ENI oil company.

Contrast with Berlusconi

How the Prodi-Berlusconi conflict will affect European politics when Italy takes over the rotating presidency of the EU council in July, can now only be guessed at.

Apart from being political rivals, the two men are entirely different in many ways.

Mr Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, an irascible former cruise liner singer, who complains about being too busy to sail on his yacht these days or visit his villa in Bermuda.

Mr Prodi is a crumpled-looking mild-mannered intellectual who used to cycle to work in Bologna, and sometimes nods off to sleep during long meetings in Brussels.

Unlike Mr Berlusconi, while Mr Prodi has been investigated for corruption, he has never been charged.

As part of a commitment to transparency in the EU, his correspondence as president of the European Commission is listed on the internet, and copies are available on request.

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