Europe in turmoil: Sleaze inquiry puts pressure on Cresson in to

EDITH CRESSON held discussions with the team investigating the sleaze allegations against her yesterday, one day before their report on European Union fraud is expected.

The meeting came as Socialist MEPs stepped up the pressure on Ms Cresson, threatening again to sack the entire European Commission if individuals criticised by the inquiry stay put.

Amid mounting tension in Brussels, Ms Cresson was one of eight top European officials given the opportunity to see the findings of the committee of "wise persons", whose report will be delivered at 5pm today.

The former French prime minister shows no sign of quitting her post as Commissioner for Education and Research, raising the prospect of a re-run of January's heated dispute between European Parliament and the Commission.

A spokesman for Ms Cresson said she was happy to study the report's findings, but would not comment until tonight.

The final draft of the report was being concluded last night before being handed to the presidents of the European Commission and Parliament today. The Commission will hold an emergency meeting on the findings at 9pm.

Pauline Green, leader of the European Parliament's largest group, the Socialists, said: "If the report shows wrongdoing by any individual then whoever they are, they must be rooted out." Ms Green warned that if the Commission President Jacques Santer "dithers or delays, it will be his own head that is on the block".

Her comments were ominous, as the Socialists helped avert a mass sacking of the Commission in January.

Alan Donnelly, leader of the 60 Labour MEPs, said: "The president of the Commission must act immediately on the recommendations of the report to ensure his personal credibility and the continued presidency."

Ms Cresson's fate depends on the tone of the report and whether it specifically identifies Commissioners as culprits, or simply makes general criticisms.

As the fraud saga reaches its final chapter, Ms Cresson and Mr Santer are locked in a bitter dispute. Ms Cresson believes that Mr Santer is conspiring to sacrifice her.

When the fraud allegations broke in January, Mr Santer said stuck to the collective line of defence, arguing that he would rather resign than see individual Commissioners censured. To Ms Cresson's anger, that line has changed. Mr Santer said last month that he would consider asking any Commissioner judged guilty of misdeeds to step down.

On Friday Mr Santer added: "The committee has worked in a professional and objective manner. The Commission will respond to its recommendations as they concern the general operations of the Commission or the conduct of individual members."

In fact, Mr Santer does not have the power to sack individual Commissioners. With the support of the Commission he can only refer their cases to the European Court of Justice. This is the only body that can sack a Commissioner. That could be the start of a complex judicial process.

Ms Cresson's tough line contrasts with a softer tone from Manuel Marin, a vice-president of the European Commission and another target of the MEPs. He may be ready to resign if criticised by the report of "wise persons".

The inquiry was triggered by allegations that as many as eight of the 20 Commissioners presided over fraud or serious irregularities in their departments, or handed contracts to friends or relatives.

Investigations into the "Leonardo da Vinci" youth programme, for which Ms Cresson is responsible, revealed a catalogue of mismanagement, dubious practice and suspected fraud. Ms Cresson is accused of nepotism after appointing a friend, Rene Berthelot, to the post of scientific visitor.

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