EU In Crisis: Eurocrats at last face the new reality

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IT TOOK MORE than 36 hours after the drama of the European Commission's mass resignation for the full meaning of the word "resign" to fully sink in on the top floors of the Breydel building, the Commission's headquarters in Brussels.

To the amazement of some of her colleagues, the private office of Edith Cresson, the shamed French commissioner at the centre of the crisis, was still behaving as if nothing had happened. On Tuesday evening they circulated the detail of new proposals relating to her research and education portfolio. Under normal circumstances the plans were to have been considered by the Commission at its regular weekly meeting yesterday.

"I could not believe my eyes," said a member of another commissioner's entourage. "It was as if they were still in denial".

By lunchtime yesterday Mr Santer and most members of his team had finally accepted the new reality. In contrast to the previous day's indignant press conference where he slated the sleaze inquiry team's findings, Mr Santer did not speak to the press at all yesterday. In fact he appeared to have been muzzled by his colleagues. Karel Van Miert thecommissioner for competition policy flanked by Sweden's Anita Gradin and Italy's Mario Monti emerged instead.

Taking firm charge of the situation Mr Van Miert, a popular, no-nonsense Belgian with a strong political reputation, told a press conference there was no question of it being business as usual. The planned publication of a major white paper on overhauling EU competition law was one of the first casualties of the resignations, he said. It would be shelved.

He said the Commission would discharge its legal obligations: opening or closing state aid inquiries, or organising tenders for grain and sugar exports, one of the Commission's more arcane duties under the Common Agricultural Policy. It would also give "a helping hand" to EU governments and the European Parliament to reach agreements on reforming the Union's finances and the CAP, but no new initiatives that might be deemed political in character would be tabled. "We must not give the impression we are sulking" Mr Van Miert said. "Even if the Commission has resigned we cannot block the work of the European Union".

Mr Van Miert was one of those who also moved to distance himself from the tainted Jacques Santer, pointing out that it was "totally unfair" to tar everyone with the same brush.

Earlier, as they arrived for their regular weekly meeting, the twenty commissioners were again besieged by a scrum of reporters and television crews. "No it is not business as usual," Neil Kinnock told them. "It can't be. We resigned on Monday night."

Bizarrely in what smacked of bolting the stable door after the horse had bolted, the commissioners did discuss and approve new proposals for tackling fraud.

Announcing the measures, Mr Monti, the commissioner for the single market, allowed himself a small smile. "I think you might find this a little ... relevant," he said.

Even more bizarre was the spectacle of the flamboyant Irish commissioner Padraig Flynn throwing a party on the eighth floor of the building.

Not one to be put off by the atmosphere of mourning all around him, Mr Flynn invited staff and fellow commissioners to a feast of Guinness, Irish coffee and smoked salmon in celebration of St Patrick's Day. Mr Flynn entertained his guests with a rendition of "The West's Awake", a ballad about English oppression in Ireland. Sir Leon Brittan, who is being tipped by some as a potential interim president of the Commission, laughed loudly when Mr Flynn reached the dramatic climax of the song.

Mr Flynn was not mentioned in the fraud report but is unlikely to be reappointed to the Commission by Dublin because of separate allegations relating to a pounds 50,000 gift from a builder when he was an Irish government minister some years ago.