Europe in turmoil: Report savaged EU chiefs for litany of fraud, failure and favouritism

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The Independent Online
THE LINE of shiny, black limos parked outside the European Commission's Breydel building in Brussels told its own story. It usually takes a crisis to draw all 20 commissioners to their official workplace on a Monday. But that was an understatement of the mood as Europe's top officials met in emergency session last night.

All day the tension had mounted, as the presses worked overtime, churning out copies of a long-awaited inquiry into cronyism, fraud and corruption in Brussels. When it arrived it was no disappointment, savaging key commissioners, including Edith Cresson, attacking Jacques Santer, the Commission president, and making a devastating critique of the culture in which Brussels operates.

Ms Cresson was targeted on two fronts, the first being her management of the Leonardo da Vinci youth training programme. She has denied any wrongdoing, but the independent experts said she "failed to act in response to known and serious continuing irregularities over several years".

Worse, she "bears serious responsibility for having failed, though in full possession of the facts, to inform the president of the Commission, and through him the European Parliament, of the problems of implementing Leonardo 1, at a time when the latter had to take a decision whether or not to approve Leonardo 2". This was, it adds, "unacceptable".

At least as damaging for Ms Cresson are the separate nepotism claims, revolving around her decision to employ a dentist from her home town of Chatellerault as a scientific visitor. The appointment of Rene Berthelot was, the report judged, "manifestly irregular", and the five independent experts concluded: "What we have here is a clear-cut case of favouritism."

Moreover, it says, Mr Berthelot's frequent "missions to Chatellerault [virtually all the missions undertaken] are hard to justify... without considering the significance of that town and of its links with the commissioner, who was its mayor until the end of 1997."

Manuel Marin, the Commission's Spanish vice- president, bore the brunt of criticism for irregularities of the "Med" programme of aid to Mediterranean countries. Mr Marin, it concludes, "allowed too long a period to elapse between the detection of problems by the Court of Auditors and the launching of an administrative inquiry [20 months]". It adds: "The Commission as a whole deserves serious criticism (as in other cases under review) for launching a new, politically important and highly expensive programme without having the resources - especially staff - to do so."

A similar complaint is made against the European Community Humanitarian Office's humanitarian aid project, where a lack of proper staffing was tolerated for several years. The report says: "This exposed ECHO to the fraud and irregularities which occurred. There is, however, no suggestion that Mr Marin was aware of any fraud." Other cases of favouritism are listed. Monika Wulf-Mathies, commissioner for regional policy, was criticised for the appointment of a legal expert with whom she "had long been acquainted" on a one-year contract.

The decision by the Portuguese commissioner, Joao de Deus Pinheiro, to employ his brother-in-law as deputy chef de cabinet, one of the most senior positions in the private office, followed the correct rules. "Nevertheless," says the document, "the committee believes that a commissioner should under no circumstances recruit a close relation to work in his or her private office".

Nor did Mr Santer escape criticism. His office is responsible for the Commission's security guard service, although "neither he, who is nominally responsible for the security office, nor his private office, took any meaningful interest in the way it operated. As a result, no supervision was exercised and a 'state within a state' was allowed to develop".

The document lists a catalogue of dubious practices, including the cancellation of parking tickets or drink-driving charges against friends.

Perhaps most damning for Mr Santer was the section on political responsibility. The report says: "The studies carried out by the committee have too often revealed a growing reluctance among the members of the hierarchy to acknowledge their responsibility. It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility."

Although there was no evidence of a case "where a commissioner was directly and personally involved in fraudulent activities", there were instances where "commissioners or the Commission as a whole bear responsibility for instances of fraud, irregularities or mismanagement".

"Protestations of ignorance on the part of commissioners concerning problems that were often common knowledge in their services, even up to the highest official levels, are tantamount to an admission of a loss of control by the political authorities over the administration that they are supposedly running."

One of the principal problems inadvertently highlighted by the report is that Brussels has no agreed administrative culture; what is cronyism in one country is legitimate use of patronage in another and such practices have seeped into the hybrid Brussels bureaucracy.

One of the most notorious practices in the Commission is an accepted fact of life even among the British. This is the phenomenon known as le parachutage, where members of commissioners' private offices are dropped into the juiciest permanent positions.

Some commissioners and their staff are hard working but others are not, and some of those who are well-intentioned discover that their portfolios do not make up a full-time job. In this climate it is little wonder that the three-hour lunch, and the lengthy round of golf are both long- held traditions. Finding a commissioner or indeed any Commission official in the office on a Friday afternoon is a surprise and one ex-Commissioner tells of arriving before 8am and finding only the cleaning staff in the building.

Cleaning of an altogether different kind is now under way. This stunningly disinfectant report has ensured that.

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