EU Commissioners reveal financial interests

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The Independent Online
ROMANO PRODI and his incoming European Commission yesterday sought to defuse a confrontation with MEPs by publishing the most detailed declaration of financial interests yet produced by Brussels.

The move, designed to eliminate conflicts of interest, came just three days before the start of crucial US-style confirmation hearings under which the designated commissioners will be questioned by members of the European Parliament.

The intervention came as the centre-right bloc which dominates the parliament announced that committees it controls will seek to hold votes on the calibre of individual commissioners at the end of their hearings.

The parliament does not have the power to prevent the appointment of individuals but can vote down the entire team if it has objections. Yesterday's move, the legitimacy of which was disputed by Mr Prodi's spokesman, would effectively allow MEPs to single out would-be commissioners for censure.

In a pre-emptive strike designed to stress its openness, the Commission- designate published its list of financial interests in which Mr Prodi, himself the subject of recent accusations over his business activities in Italy, listed 11 honorary positions. The former Italian premier also declared a 50 per cent stake in an Italian company ASE which, he said, was being wound down, and a half share in two properties in Bologna.

Former Tory Cabinet minister Chris Patten, who will become foreign affairs commissioner - subject to approval by MEPs - lists property in London and the south-west of France, and shares worth pounds 17,941 in the Heavitree Brewery plc. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the incoming vice president, says simply that all his real estate assets "are for family use".

Only six of Mr Prodi's team said they owned shares, including Ireland's David Byrne, whose declared holdings and other investments are worth more than pounds 66,000.

After a full day's meeting of the incoming commission, Mr Prodi announced the appointment of Lord Simon, the British minister who left the Government in the summer reshuffle, to a working group examining changes to the EU's structures ahead of enlargement.

The establishment of the group, to be led by Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian premier, is a sign that Mr Prodi believes current ideas for greater integration, including an extension of qualified majority voting, are insufficiently ambitious.

Neither of Britain's designated commissioners are likely to face significant opposition during the hearings, despite the opposition of the UK Conservatives to Mr Kinnock's return.

The main target for MEPs is expected to be Pascal Lamy, the French commissioner-designate for trade, who faces questions about his role as an aide to the former Commission president, Jacques Delors. Some MEPs were also concerned about the replies sent by Mr Lamy to a questionnaire which stressed the independence of the Commission.