EU In Crisis: 'A completely ignominious way for them to be sacked'

`A completely ignominious way for them to be sacked'
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THERE WAS not even a hint of illicit sex but the sensational contents of the 140-page report into cronyism and fraud in the European Commission could not have generated a bigger media frenzy if the Clinton investigator Kenneth Starr himself had been leading the inquiry.

Hordes of journalists, television crews and photographers stampeded when the trolley laden with boxes of the first copies was wheeled into the European Parliament at 6.45pm. Like bargain hunters on the first day of Harrods' sale they jostled each other out of the way, ripping copies away from rivals.

Within seconds, they were leaping into taxis or bellowing the juiciest quotes about France's commissioner Edith Cresson and her dentist down mobile phones to every capital in Europe.

A few hundred metres away at the Breydel building, the headquarters of the Commission, fleets of black limousines were massed. Inside, those commissioners who had not been quizzed by the committee of wise men on Sunday were seeing the report for the first time.

Franz Fischler, the Austrian in charge of agriculture, was not mentioned in the document. But as he turned the final page he told an aide to prepare a statement. Whatever the outcome of the Commission's meeting, he would resign. "He just read the conclusions and he knew it was all over" a source said.

MEPs were swift to bray for blood but at that stage on Monday evening the targets were just Ms Cresson and, to a lesser extent, the Commission President, Jacques Santer. Pat Cox, the Parliament's Liberal leader, hinted that if Ms Cresson was not gone before nightfall the game would be up. British Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott called a press conference flanked by Paul van Buitenen, the Commission whistle-blower who was suspended for revealing the corruption. The Tories called for all 20 commissioners to be sacked but few imagined this would happen.

"I have been very lonely" the Dutchman said, "And I still am not certain about what is going to happen to me."

Edith Cresson, the former commissioner for education and training who yesterday defiantly said "Je ne regrette rien", might have been thinking along the same lines as Mr van Buitenen, but she was giving nothing away.

The Commission was scheduled to meet at 9pm but the start time slipped as commissioners and their aides pored over the document. Some had brought in food, expecting a long night.

But as the devastating implications of the conclusions sank in - particularly the charge that the commissioners had lost control and had displayed not the slightest sense of political responsibility for the fraud and mismanagement - there was a final attempt to force Ms Cresson to take the rap.

She had been singled out not only for hiring her dentist in the fictitious capacity of visiting scientist, but also for deliberately misleading both her colleagues and the European Parliament over known fraud in the Leonardo scheme, a pounds 400m youth training project.

In ones and twos her colleagues beat a path to her door suggesting that she might want to reconsider her position. But a phone call between Mr Santer and Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, established what many had feared. The French were not going to allow a former prime minister to become the sacrificial lamb. In any case, commissioners and their private advisers were soon to witness their own demise on the closed circuit television link. It was an ignominious way to be sacked.

In the office of the British commissioner, Neil Kinnock, there was consternation when only the Spanish interpretation channel could be found. Pauline Green, leader of the 200 Socialists - who helped save the Commission a mass sacking in January - was about to make her public statement.

That was the turning point. She was now looking for the heads of all 20 commissioners. "We are calling on the European Commission to accept responsibility for the conclusions of the report and resign," she said.

The speculation in Brussels was that Mr Jospin's decision to stand by Ms Cresson led in turn to pressure from Paris on the French Socialist MEPs. The Socialist move ensured that if the commissioners did not go, they would be pushed.

"After that a great calm descended," recalled one official. "The choice was pretty clear."

The Commission's meeting began at 10.20pm with a four-minute introduction from Jacques Santer. The mass resignation scenario was tabled immediately and met only short-lived resistance.

Ritt Bjerregaard, the Dane in charge of environment policy, was one of those who said she saw no reason to be tarred with the same brush as Ms Cresson. Yves-Thibault de Silguy, France's commissioner for monetary policy, said he thought everyone should have resigned in January when the censure motion was first voted.

Both Mr Kinnock and the Irish Padraig Flynn said that although the report was unbalanced there was no response to the verdict but a collective resignation. Ms Cresson said little but maintained a demeanour one source summed up merely as "Cressonesque".

After agreeing to resign as a body the Commission adjourned, leaving Mr Santer to compose himself and draft a statement for the press. Mr Fischler beat him to it with a statement announcing his own resignation. The game was up.

At about 10 minutes to 1.00am, a grim-faced Mr Santer took the lift down to the basement where the airless overheated press centre was heaving with excitement. It took only a few seconds. There were no questions allowed and Mr Santer returned to his office.

The sun was shining yesterday morning as the disgraced commission team reconvened at the Breydel. Early interviews on French radio had caught Ms Cresson off guard. For the first time she admitted she may have been "a little careless", although she still had "no regrets".

The crisis was the kind of crisis you only get in Brussels. Mr Santer appeared before the press again this time to say he was "whiter than white" and would be going down fighting. "I do not accept that four years of work can be reduced to six cases of irregularities," he said.

Mr Fischler went to address a routine agricultural committee meeting, Mr Kinnock met a delegation from the European electronics and aviation industry, and the Finnish commissioner, Erkki Liikanen, bravely honoured a breakfast appointment with journalists.

It was left to the British trade commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, to sum up events of the previous night most succinctly. "It is a disaster," he said in a radio interview, as the new, uncertain dawn broke.