Santer pledges war on Euro-fraud

EU censure vote: Beleagured commission president offers sweeping reforms in bid to stave off mass sackings
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WITH THE threat of sacking hanging over his head, the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, moved to placate members of the European Parliament last night, with the promise of acrackdown on cronyism in the commission and new powers for MEPs to investigate the body's financial affairs.

In a speech which may have staved off the threat of Europe's parliament resorting to its "nuclear option" in a vote on Thursday, Mr Santer tabled proposals which he had earlier discussed with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder.

In a charged atmosphere, Mr Santer and all nineteen members of the EU's executive body appeared before the 626 members of the European Parliament gathered in Strasbourg to debate a motion of censure which could see the entire commission dismissed.

The censure motion was triggered in December after MEPs refused to sign off the 1996 EU accounts, claiming the Commission had ignored demands that it come clean on a series of scandals relating to EU financed overseas aid and vocational training schemes. Yesterday Mr Santer insisted that neither he nor his officials had intentionally mishandled the fraud cases which had come to light. Calling on MEPs to work with the commission he outlined an eight point plan to overhaul the executive.

It includes a pledge to end the practice of "parachuting" commissioners' aides and advisers into top commission posts and a new anti fraud committee to supervise Uclaf, the commission's existing butdiscredited fraud office.

Although MEPs used last night's debate to level fierce criticism at the commission, there were signs that many MEPs are drawing back from the "nuclear option", the never before used power to sack the entire commission.

It would take the votes of two thirds of MEPs, to pass the censure motion and that now looks increasingly unlikely.

The two biggest groups, the Socialists and Christian Democrats made it clear last night they believe that sacking the commission would plunge the entire Union into disaster.

The majority of EU governments are led by Socialists and they are disinclined to use their Strasbourg majority in this way.

The leftist bloc's line, as outlined by Socialist leader Pauline Green, is that in the event of moves to sack individual commissioners, Socialists have no choice but to support the dismissal of the entire executive.

Appealing to colleagues not to press the nuclear button, Ms Green said: "This house cannot extend this crisis into the coming months". A commission which had steered the launch of the single currency and negotiations to enlarge the EU could not, Ms Green said, be declared "incompetent".

Thursday's vote could still see blood on the carpet if Mr Santer's promises prove too little or too late to assuage Strasbourg's most inflamed tempers.

There were angry calls in the chamber last night for the resignations of individual members of the commission, pending formal inquiries into fraud in their departments. The Liberal group, the third largest grouping in the Strasbourg assembly demanded the resignations of Edith Cresson, the commissioner in charge of education and training, and Manuel Marin, the Spaniard responsible for overseas aid.

To loud applause the Liberal leader Pat Cox insisted that the commission is a political body, and not just a bureaucracy.

"In politics", he said, "the buck must stop somewhere".

Earlier, in what may prove to have been the saving of the commission, the German Chancellor had called for a formal inquiry into the sleaze allegations against members of the commission and a new authority to oversee the commission's anti fraud unit.

"We want a stable commission, one which is able to function" Mr Schroder said, adding "Our preoccupation should be to advance Europe"