Last binge of the Euro chiefs

THE EUROPEAN Commissioners set to leave their postings in Brussels are busy spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on lavish trips all over the world.

Before they leave their jobs in September, the commissioners have been "concentrating on spending their travel budgets", according to senior commission sources.

In the past months, after a damning investigation of EU finances found evidence of widespread mismanagement, commissioners have found the time to make speeches in the high-class resorts of Capri, Cape Verde and the Ivory Coast.

Others have gone at the taxpayer's expense on trips to America and Brazil not listed in the official EU calendar of commissioners' movements, which is supposed to list all visits on behalf of the EU.

The worst offender is Joao de Deus Pinheiro of Portugal, who was criticised in the report on EU fraud for giving his brother-in-law a highly paid job in his cabinet office. Mr Pinheiro, who is responsible for EU relations with Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, this month spent four days in the scenic resort of Cape Verde, where he was officially attending a conference on development donors.

His office confirmed that the EU paid his expenses - including first- class air fare - and that the commissioner spent last weekend, too, in the picturesque archipelago, whose deep-sea diving and stunning scenery have made it a magnet for expensive holidays.

"It was an official mission, so he has expenses. I don't know what the commissioner did at the weekend. I never asked about his private life," a spokeswoman said. The trip was not included in the European Commission's official calendar.

Martin Bangemann, a German commissioner responsible for IT and industry, who was not blamed in the report, has been busy travelling to the US and Brazil. Last week, according to his office, he was in Denver, making a speech at a university. And last weekend he was in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at a communications conference. He intends to stand down from the commission in order to spend more time sailing.

Today France's commissioner Yves-Thibault de Silguy, who is not expected to be reappointed, is busy in the Ivory Coast, where he will remain until tomorrow on an "official visit".

The commissioner responsible for financial affairs, who works closely with the discredited president of the commission, Jacques Santer, was on another official visit last week, to Senegal.

Senior officials in the commission are disgusted by the number of junkets that some outgoing commissioners are taking. "It's completely unbelievable. They are jetting all over the world to spend what's left of their travel budgets before they leave," one source said. "Half these missions have very tenuous connections to their official responsibilities."

The commission refused to confirm how much the trips cost, but on average commissioners receive pounds 60,000 a year in travel expenses on top of their pounds 125,000 salaries, chauffeur-driven cars and generous allowances for living away from home. A spokesman for the commission's personnel department said that commissioners were able to spend "whatever they like".

"A commissioner has an unlimited budget; he can go wherever he wants," the spokesman said.