Europe: Failings in EU tolerated 'far too long'

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The Independent Online
"ROOT AND branch reform" of the European Commission was demanded by MPs from all sides yesterday as Tony Blair called for an entirely new framework for fighting fraud and financial irregularities in the EU. Opening his Commons statement, Mr Blair said it was "absolutely right" that the whole Commission had resigned because the inquiry report revealed a "sad catalogue of negligence and mismanagement".

"It is a damning report. It catalogues in key areas a culture of complacency and lack of accountability, and in some cases nepotism, that is unacceptable. It has revealed systemic failings in the Commission which have been tolerated for far too long. It was absolutely right that the Commission resigned en masse. The president of the Commission should leave as soon as reasonably and practically possible and a new president should take his place," he said.

The Conservative leader,William Hague, welcomed the proposals, but demanded that Sir Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock, the two British EU commissioners, should also be prevented from being appointed to the new Commission.

"While I support the idea [that] those commissioners not directly implicated by the report should serve out their terms as an interim measure, there should be a total clear-out of the existing Commission and an entirely new set of commissioners appointed," he said. Mr Hague added that there was an "even bigger issue and a more important challenge" because it was time to change the whole structure which led the Commission and the EU "to do too much and interfere too often".

Individual countries, for example, should be able to control their fisheries while recognising the traditional rights of other countries.

Replying, Mr Blair made clear that the majority of the irregularities mentioned in the report happened before his government was elected, adding: "Do we use these events as an excuse to indulge in the anti-Europeanism of the present Conservative Party or do we see it as an opportunity to drive through a reform agenda from a position of strength and influence in Britain's and Europe's interests?"

John Major, the former Tory prime minister, referred to the "institutional problem" that had long existed in the EU.

"The structure of the union is such that the Commission is accountable to the Council of Ministers, but in practice the Council meets only irregularly," he said. "Isn't one of the most important reforms, many years overdue, a clear-cut financial accountability by the Commission, ideally to the member states of the EU, or to a body that reports directly to the member states?"

Sir Edward Heath, another former Tory prime minister, said it was the "first time that the European Parliament has been prepared to act and act decisively.... Things will never be the same again."

Sir Edward supported the drive for reform but warned Mr Blair against trying to "run everything", because that would arouse resentment among other EU nations.

Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, called for greater power for MPs to "vote for and appoint British commissioners in Brussels".

Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, complained that EU states "scratch one another's back to get what they want", so that there was an inevitable "democratic deficit".

Such "crises" were bound to recur unless the European Parliament was "beefed up" but that would only lead to "a United States of Europe", hesaid.

Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, spoke of the "humiliation the Commission has suffered over the last 24 hours".

He told MPs that relations between the European Parliament and the Commission would never be quite the same again. "If we are to have a Europe which was open and transparent, that will be achieved not merely by modifications and alterations but by radical reform," he said.

In the Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis, a Labour peer and a former European Commissioner, attacked yesterday's statement by Mr Santer defending his presidency as "unwise and unacceptable".

Labour's former Lords leader, Lord Richard, another former EU Commissioner, added: "It was a Pandora's box which has now been opened and a can of worms has come out."

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