Sleaze row could ruin Santer's team

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The Independent Online
THE SLEAZE crisis gripping Brussels approached meltdown yesterday, as a welter of extraordinary allegations and a public relations disaster engulfed the European Commission.

As claims of corruption, intimidation cronyism and nepotism within the organisation gained new ground, officials struggled to prevent the row from spiralling out of control and inflicting fatal damage on the Commission.

For the second time in two days extraordinary allegations broke surface as the whistleblower at the centre of the row went public with allegations that there were threats against him and his family. Counter-claims included suggestions that the revelations were politically inspired, and that a dirty tricks campaign was being investigated by security services.

With Brussels plunged into an unprecedented internal crisis, all 20 European commissioners could, in theory, find themselves out of a job by this time next week. That would call into question the sweeping package of reforms aimed at preparing the EU for enlargement and could even undermine the credibility of the euro.

Although the two-thirds majority needed to sack the whole Commission is unlikely, tempers have been inflamed by the untimely suspension of the whistleblower, Paul van Buitenen. In an unexpected twist, Socialist MEPs said yesterday they would rather vote the entire Commission out of office than see individual commissioners "impeached".

Mr van Buitenen claims he has faced physical threats over his allegations. At an impromptu press conference he said: "I felt threatened. I had phone calls from colleagues who counselled me to leave my home immediately." As reported yesterday by The Independent, Mr van Buitenen claims he has evidence that guards were arming themselves with snipers' rifles complete with telescopic sights and silencers.

Earlier the European Commission President, Jacques Santer, gave an unconvincing interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that failed to dampen the criticism.

Socialist political leaders argued that all the commissioners targeted were from the left, indicating that the campaign was "politically motivated".

Edith Cresson, one of the commissioners implicated in the crisis, even hinted to French journalists that allegations against her were dirty tricks now being investigated by the security services.

Officials are stunned at the speed with which the drama has unfolded. Mr van Buitenen himself said yesterday that the Commission "as a whole is not corrupt and fraudulent", adding: "If I thought that, I would not be seeking reinstatement."

But a combination of complacency, cack-handedness and lack of political touch has projected a row over financial irregularities into a full-scale political showdown.

With open season against the Commission, even Mr Santer has faced personal questioning. At a bizarre press conference on Wednesday, the EC president was quizzed about his wife's property dealings. Clearly taken aback, he recoiled in alarm before giving a lengthy explanation of how he and his wife fund their three homes in Luxembourg.

Later the focus moved on to the financial affairs of the wife of the Finnish commissioner, Errki Liikanen. Within minutes, Mr Liikanen emerged from his office to make an impassioned defence of his wife's dealings, and giving out her phone number for anyone who wanted to make further checks.

The two sitting commissioners in the main spotlight are Ms Cresson and Manuel Marin. Ms Cresson is blamed for poor administration of a youth training programme and for alleged favouritism in awarding of contracts. Mr Marin is under fire over the administration of the multi-million pound humanitarian aid budget, "Echo", which he controlled until 1995, and the "Med" programme designed to help Mediterranean countries.

The trouble started last month when the Strasbourg parliament threatened to refuse to sign off a set of EU accounts for 1996. At that point Mr van Buitenen delivered his dossier to the Greens who released it publicly, in the process accidentally revealing his identity. The dossier argued that inefficiency was widespread and that fraud investigations were often cursory. However, the Commission still looked likely to win the vote, until it issued a "back us or sack us" ultimatum to MEPs. The letter spectacularly backfired and the vote went the other way.

Mr Santer's backers, including the Socialist group, put down a censure motion assuming it would be rejected emphatically with the Commission cleared in the process. Again that looked likely before news of the Commission's next blunder - Mr van Buitenen's suspension.

Unknown to Mr Santer's cabinet, Mr van Buitenen was suspended on 18 December by officials in charge of personnel in line with procedures. News of the decision emerged on Monday, inflaming passions ahead of next week's vote.

Yesterday the political crisis intensified as one of the Commission's defenders, Pauline Green, leader of the Socialist MEPs raised the stakes in response to moves by Conservative and other MEPs to target individual European commissioners. If there was significant support for a motion criticising individuals, her group would vote next week to sack the entire Commission, she said.

Edward McMillan Scott, leader of the Conservative MEPs, called for the resignation of six commissioners adding: "Heads must now roll."

Bureaucrats at the heart of Gravy train scandal

Paul Van Buitenen

The 41-year-old Dutchman who provoked the storm was an anonymous mid- ranking civil servant, an assistant in the internal audit unit of the Commission until Christmas Eve when he was suspended after publicising his allegations. Attempts to discredit him suggest he is a political activist for the Greens, a claim he denies. Says he has no ambitions other than to be a devout Christian and "an honest man".

Edith Cresson

The 65-year-old former French Prime Minister, commissioner for education and training since 1995, could be one of the victims of the sleaze outcry, even though Paul Van Buitenen has not alleged any personal wrongdoing. Mme Cresson is best known in Britain for some of her own memorable allegations: one was that most Englishmen are homosexual, another that the Japanese are a nation of ants.

Manuel Marin

The Spaniard in charge of EU policy on Third World development has the appearance of a Franciscan monk and is reputed to be a dark brooding melancholic. Marin, 49, now in his second term as commissioner, was responsible for the EU's humanitarian aid office when irregularities, now under police investigation, were allegedly perpetrated. He denies any personal wrongdoing.

Jacques Santer

Avuncular and mild-mannered, Santer, 62, seemed shocked to find his traditional new year press conference turn to chaos amid mounting allegations about fraud this week. The Commission President is the former Premier of Luxembourg and emerged from political obscurity as a compromise and, therefore, weak, candidate after John Major vetoed the man everyone else wanted to replace Jacques Delors.

Erkki Liikanen

Finland's first commissioner has been doing his best to bring upright Scandinavian values into the French and Italian-dominated bureaucracy. In charge of the pounds 60bn budget and the internal administration, he has provoked uproar by scrapping traditional perks, attempting to modernise procedures and rid Brussels of its gravy train reputation. Tells people how he comes from a culture where cronyism is alien.