Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, dismissed as "stupid" a German newspaper report of an attempt by his British colleagues Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten to oust him after not much more than six months in the job. The next day, however, he called an emergency meeting to discuss the rumours.
What has been going on in the European Commission is a mixture of low farce and serpentine politics. An editorial cock-up on that most sober European newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, fuelled by gossip, speculation and a good dose of malice, precipitated a frenzy that raises questions about Prodi's management abilities and whether this commission will be able successfully to ride out the challenges of the next few years. If it is thrown into a flutter by a newspaper, how will it cope with a real crisis?
The FAZ's front-page tale from Brussels about rumours of a backstage conspiracy by Kinnock and Patten to "commit regicide" followed a more sober account in the magazine Der Spiegel the previous day. It was destined for the decent obscurity of an inside page before being catapulted frontwards by a quirk of executive decision-making. Perhaps the editors were bounced by increasing attacks on Europe in the German media, fuelled by outrage about corruption - much of it revealed by German investigative journalists - and resentment that German taxpayers are funding much of it through their country's disproportionate contributions to the EU. Now that Helmut Kohl has gone, his fellow citizens no longer feel that any price is right for the greater European good.
The FAZ, normally reliably pro-EU, is just about the most respectable newspaper in Europe. So it could not be ignored, even though, the following day, it carried a retraction, thinly disguised as a reaction story, discreetly pointing out the more egregious errors in its original article. Its hapless correspondent was summoned to receive a dressing-down from the German ambassador. Whether it was also wise for Prodi to summon the commission to discuss the allegations formally the next day, and then to announce that he was doing so, is another matter. It gave every other newspaper in Europe the opportunity to run "back me or sack me" tales and to elevate a gentle smear into a crisis.
Yet smear it was. The idea that Kinnock - a long-standing and close friend of Prodi - or Patten were plotting is the least likely conspiracy story in Brussels. There is plotting, but not by them. Ever since the Anglophile former Italian prime minister was appointed to sort out the mess left by the resignation of Jacques Santer's commission and to reform the bureaucracy's shady ways last year, there have been murmurings. Prodi himself has not helped, combining political inexperience with hapless insensitivity. As a former economics professor, he was used to dealing in lofty rhetoric without consequence, and he is only slowly recognising the limits of insouciance. Blithe talk of a united Europe does not go down well with national governments trying to reconcile their electorates to the EU, nor do lightly issued invitations to Colonel Gaddafi to drop by.
Meanwhile, the bureaucrats fear that long-cherished, comfortable and unaccountable positions are on the line through the imposition of such revolutionary reforms as appointment and promotion on merit and performance. The restaurants of Brussels are ringing to denunciations of Prodi and Kinnock for betraying Europe's founding fathers, diminishing the commission's power and status and, most insidiously, allowing the creeping Anglo-Saxonisation of the bureaucracy.
They murmur that too many people are speaking English these days and that too many Brits are being appointed (statistically untrue). Old French bureaucratic traditions are being devalued - and by a man who, as the French newspaper Liberation declared last year, does not speak a word of the language of Moliere. Kinnock is quaintly denounced as a Thatcherite. With the decline of French, the inrush of English and now the devaluation of traditional French socialist thought by "Blairisme", the bien pensants, always sensitive to the loss of influence, are restive.
Pierre de Boisseau, a former French am-bassador to the EU and now Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, is suspected as the source of some of the ru-mours. He was seen passing notes to Jacques Chirac at a recent meeting to re-mind the president to stress the authority of Javier Solana as Europe's foreign policy su-premo over Chris Patten, the EU foreign af-fairs commissioner. How neat if the French were offloading their fears in the German press. Talleyrand would have approved.
Rising above this storm in a cup of water, as Prodi has put it, is the question of how happy the member states are to see the commission in the mire. Unfortunately, the key leaders are all distracted. Chirac and Lionel Jospin are at each other's throats with the presidential election looming. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has domestic problems and difficulties fending off EU investigations into German regional banks. The Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, is playing the nationalist card, with Europe growing more unpopular as Spaniards realise that, as a result of their increasing prosperity, hitherto bounteous funding from Brussels will be reduced. Denmark and Sweden face ticklish referendums on joining the euro. Austria has problems over Jorg Haider. And Tony Blair, potentially the most powerful European figure, is distracted by domestic Euroscepticism. Everywhere, politicians have reason to back-pedal on Europe and leave Prodi to stew.
This brings us to the most Machiavellian explanation of the recent crisis - that Prodi provoked it himself in order to wake up the heads of government and rally his supporters. If so, it was pretty cack-handed.
Stephen Bates was European affairs editor of the Guardian, 1995-99