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EU In Crisis: Nations rush to back their own members

THE CITIZENS of Europe woke up to a frightening vacuum at the heart of the Brussels bureaucracy yesterday, but were quickly reassured by a wave of solidarity bursting from every capital of the continent. Solidarity, that is, for each nation's representative in Brussels.

Britain proudly led the way once more, with Tony Blair rallying behind his beleaguered commissioners, Messrs Kinnock and Brittan. The others soon followed.

Italy, for instance, expressed itself appalled by the goings-on in Brussels, and demanded that the new commissioners be appointed quickly. The two Italian members of the discredited body, Emma Bonino and Mario Monti, were, of course, totally beyond reproach.

"The Government expresses solidarity and appreciation for their deep commitment during these years ... and also for the correctness of their work, which was confirmed by the independent committee," Rome swiftly declared.

Finland seemed delighted with the mass resignation, saying it should pave the way for a more efficient successor. But the Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, did not want the clear-out to go too far. It should certainly not involve Erkki Liikanen, who was in charge of budgetary affairs.

"The Finnish government has full confidence in Commissioner Erkki Liikanen," Mr Lipponen said. "He has been fully cleared in the report."

So that's all right then. This scandal, after all, had nothing to do with the EU budget.

And so it went on. "There is no doubt that a new Commission must be appointed which has new people in important positions," said Viktor Klima, the Austrian Chancellor.

Mr Klima obviously did not think the agricultural portfolio, which swallows a third of the EU's budget, is very "important", for he quickly added the following caveat: "That doesn't necessarily apply to all, however ... and I personally don't doubt the integrity of Commissioner Fischler."

And yes... Franz Fischler, the agriculture commissioner, is Austrian.

Not all countries, it has to be said, proved so patriotic. The French government pointedly refrained from mentioning Edith Cresson's name. And Germany stopped short of putting in a plug on behalf of its two stalwarts. Both, in fact, had been on the way out for sound political reasons, and the Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's Greens cannot wait to fill one of those pairs of shoes.

The Germans were in any case too busy trying to find successors. Germany is suffering from a surfeit of superannuated politicians eminently qualified for the top job in Brussels. Alas, Helmut Kohl was ruled out by his party within minutes of his hat landing in the ring.