The New Statesman Interview - Romano Prodi

Europe's president opposes war with Iraq and tells Britain to stop dithering over entry to the euro.

The sanctums of even the grandest Eurocrats resemble council parking permit offices. To counter this effect, Romano Prodi has imported keepsakes from back home. Gilded mirrors, on loan from Italian museums, adorn the walls of his Brussels workspace. A vast fresco of cherubs overhangs his seating area. But the president of the European Commission is an internationalist whose cultural tastes go wider than celestial Renaissance art. When, for example, he considers Tony Blair and the euro, Samuel Beckett springs more prosaically to mind. "We cannot go on for years and years waiting for Godot," Prodi complains.

One wonders if Blair, who labelled the EU summit in Barcelona "a joy as ever", knows how fervently his disillusion is reciprocated. Not that Prodi seeks a slanging match with his former ally. "I don't want to interfere in the British government's decision," he says, but his scorn for UK dithering is startling. I ask if he thinks Peter Hain, our minister for Europe, was right to predict that joining the euro now looks "inevitable". Prodi sighs. "This is your problem. I'm happy if you join. Please do it. Or don't do it. It is up to you. We have an Italian expression which I cannot repeat. It covers the situation."

Presumably this vulgarity, like its English equivalent, means: get a move on, or don't bother? "Yes," he confirms. "Let's say don't bother." If Blair is Godot, where does that leave Gordon Brown's five economic tests? Prodi sighs again, and invents a clear and unambiguous hurdle of his own. "I repeat: this is your problem. I don't judge the tests you make. If you were also to say that Britain will enter [the euro] when each Briton can jump more than a metre in the air, I wouldn't judge that test either. It is up to you."

This derision might be more easily shrugged off by Downing Street and the Treasury if it weren't for Prodi's financial reputation. A professor of industrial economy at Bologna University, he became prime minister of Italy in 1996, leading the centre-left Olive Tree coalition for a 28-month stint. In a country where governments topple like skittles, that tenure was the second longest since the war. It was also a success for Prodi, who redeemed Italy from a fiscal basket case and met the economic qualifications for the eurozone.

In Olive Tree days, Blair was a Prodi fan. When Jacques Santer, defeated by sleaze, left the Commission presidency, Blair was all for Prodi's candidacy. That ardour has cooled to the point where the British Prime Minister, so one insider claims, now grumbles that "academics don't make good politicians". The disappointment is mutual.

Among Prodi's worries is the paucity of the British debate. The euro, he thinks, "would give to Britain a sense of belonging that, currently, it does not have. I saw the recent Panorama programme [which registered a No vote to the euro], and I was very surprised . . . The question seems simply to be: shall we have more influence with the euro or without it? No one was saying that the euro is important for creating a European identity, which is necessary for the world of globalisation. Or that this is progress towards the order of the future world. Never. This was never mentioned."

It is true that Prodi's messianic stance on Europe has limited resonance in Britain. Barcelona, once billed by Blair as "make or break", was criticised by the Eurosceptic press for offering only incremental progress in economic reform and deregulating electricity and gas markets. Prodi is more upbeat. "It [the summit] was undervalued by the press in terms of financial services - the most important result. There are chapters that will clearly change all the financial markets of Europe." But moves towards an integrated European capital market are, he acknowledges dolefully, too obscure to grab attention.

Prodi himself is far from an austere technocrat. A cheerful man of 63, he has a Desperate Dan jawline and a paternal fondness for the euro. Do the British like it, he asks? The news that people are buying their salades nicoises and gnocchi with euros at M&S on Oxford Street delights him. At other times, he seems weary. Prodi said recently that his job is "horrible". He, inevitably, gets berated over all bureaucracy and failures, while national leaders grab the kudos for progress. As he says: "When the price of telephones went down, all were triumphant, and I was happy. But we did it."

His admirers say he is a canny populist with the capacity to restore squandered faith. Confidence in the EU has risen to above 50 per cent since he took over, a modest triumph that fails to disarm his critics. Prodi, they claim, is too lacklustre or inarticulate. The latter is a cheap shot. His French is good, and although his English gives some impression of having been acquired via a John Prescott Linguaphone course, his message is clear.

The prospect of war with Iraq appals him. "I am extremely worried . . . Every day, the difficulties seem to increase; the daily tragedies in Palestine, the steady increase of tension. To keep alive the alliance created after 11 September is more and more difficult. If there was an escalation of conflict, this would have a terrible reaction everywhere; above all on oil, because of the proximity to Europe. We have no information on Iraq. That is the first thing we need. I worry about enlargement of the conflict to any other country; not only Iraq. We need . . . a clear picture of the goal."

Will Europe categorically refuse to join a US war against Iraq? "I can't even answer the question, because we don't know the context. To say yes or no, you must at least know what you are doing and why." On the Middle East, he wants immediate peace talks involving "the US, European and Arab countries and Russians". Blair's less consensual mini-summit in Downing Street, convened to drum up support for phase one of the war on terror, struck Prodi as unhelpful. "I didn't like it. Do we want to shape a common policy or not?"

Not judging by the example of Blair and his new Italian best friend, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: shoulder to shoulder on workers' rights (or lack of them) and on Bush's Baghdad war. I ask whether, in the light of the Portuguese election, Prodi foresaw a general swing to the right in Europe. "I don't care about that," he said. "I care about issues. Change from left to right or vice versa doesn't mean very much for the future of European policy."

Is Prodi's Europe engaged in any international dialogue to discover the reality of an Iraqi threat? "No, there is none. A dialogue can be effective only if you are united. If you start to mention exceptions, as you have done, you cannot say we are united. You have a common foreign policy only if you are united." Given Blair's role in this rift, where should his allegiance be? "If you are a friend to America, you can warn them of the dangers. That is what a good ally can do . . .You could influence the European debate in a strong, influential way."

A key adviser is Valery Giscard d'Estaing, whose convention on the future of Europe reports next year. Prodi looks forward to some blue-skies thinking. "The convention is a wild animal; it will decide what it wants, and the result is unforeseeable." This sounds quite unpredictable, but Prodi is sanguine. "I advocated the convention - a necessity in a democratic Europe."

Enlargement, he also expects, will be a great success. Does he think it perilous, as some argue, to admit ten or 11 new members? "Look, of course there is some risk . . . but how can you not change?"

Prodi spent some time at Harvard, and he likes to cite American parallels to the new Europe. "Going west was their enlargement. They found the Rocky Mountains; we found Prague and Budapest." Recently, he said he envisioned Europe as "a superpower that stands equal to the US". Such dreams seem optimistic when there is so little counterweight to American stridency. "We have to find a strong European policy on issues like the Middle East. That is our duty. But please do not think us without influence."

The success of the euro has encouraged his ambitions. "The tourism season is already making it the normal currency of all North African countries. We shall have in the future the same quantity of euros as dollars. This is not an anti-American position; simply multiplying our strength. We have a clear influence in the world. A superstate? No. But our moral and political duty is to join hands and be stronger. Otherwise we will disappear. In the new world, even Germany will vanish if we do not stick together." And that, in his view, would be Britain's certain fate? "Yes," he says simply.

Prodi would love Blair to sign up for the euro. It would be good for the EU and good for us. It would also, he hints, end our semi-detached, even parasitic, status. "The British contribution is invaluable, but you must have the attitude of participating in the European institutions," he warns.

So what's his sanction? There is a long pause and some prevarication. Then he says: "You have to decide the matter; which way you're going to go. We need an active contribution on the UK side, and we don't need this type of refusal of Europe. The opt-out can go on for a long period, but there cannot be a perpetual differentiation."

Does he mean that the opt-outs, including Schengen, have an expiry date? "Well, that is what I think. In theory, you can keep those for ever, but the consequences [of doing so] would be less damaging for Europe and more so for the UK. That would be your problem. But you cannot forbid us to make progress." The wait, Signor Prodi means, has gone on long enough. Time is running out for Godot.