Strasbourg's moment of glory may backfire

The image of Europe could be damaged by MEPs' attempts to clean up the Commission, writes Stephen Castle
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The Independent Online
RARELY DOES the lanky figure of Edward McMillan-Scott, leader of the Conservative Party's Euro-MPs, cross the nation's TV screens during the Nine O'Clock News. The media are not often interested in the parliamentary tactics of Pauline Green, the former policewoman who now leads the socialist group in Europe's assembly in Strasbourg.

But just at the moment things are different. Four days ahead of a crucial vote which could expel all 20 EU commissioners from office, Brussels is in ferment as a cascade of allegations engulfs the European Commission.

Intriguingly, this is a crisis which has been triggered by MEPs - and quite a few of them think Christmas has come again, rather ahead of schedule. When they gather tomorrow, in the picturesque French city in which the parliament sits, the TV cameras will be massed, the debate beamed across a continent.

By Thursday they may extract concessions from the commission, conceivably the resignation of a commissioner, the commission president or - just possibly - the whole lot.

A more likely prospect, however, is another week of confusion with any victory for the parliament being purely Pyrrhic. As the battle between an assertive parliament and the beleaguered commission reaches a climax, not even the institution in the ascendant looks like a real winner.

The allegations at the centre of the scandal are serious: financial irregularities, nepotism, cronyism and even fraud at the heart of the European Commission. Most of the details date back several years but two sitting commissioners have been singled out for special attack. Edith Cresson faces criticism of poor administration of a youth training programme and for alleged favouritism in awarding of contracts.

Manuel Marin faces questions about the administration of the multi-billion pound humanitarian aid budget, "Echo", which he controlled until 1995, and the "Med" programme designed to help Mediterranean countries.

Away from the specific allegations, few doubt the existence in Brussels of nepotism, inefficiency and a lack of willingness to investigate fraud. But what has ensued is a political confrontation, another saga in the long-running battle of wills between the commission and the European Parliament, ever eager to expand its power and responsibilities.

The crisis started in the parliament's budget finance committee of the EU's 1996 accounts. Threats that MEPs would not sign the accounts off looked empty, until the commission circulated a letter which was seen as a "back us or sack us" ultimatum. Not for the last time in this saga a macho tactic was to backfire, and the vote went against the commission.

In the wake of that decision a censure motion was put down in the expectation that it would be heavily defeated (to be successful a two-thirds majority is required). Then the commission made a second big error in suspending a commission whistle-blower, infuriating MEPs.

The Tories and Christian Democrat and Liberal allies have tried to narrow the focus and identify up to six commissioners who should stand down. Mr McMillan-Scott, a traditional, pro-European Tory, has prospered by highlighting the fraud issue - a sensible one with which to be associated.

Resignations will, however, be difficult to achieve because the European Commission president has no power to sack a commissioner or even withdraw their portfolio; all he can do is refer them to the Court of Justice, something for which there is mounting pressure. Moreover, the way the issue has spiralled out of control has been a gift to the Euro-sceptic, rather than the pro-European, wing of conservative opinion.

The socialists, including Labour's MEPs, have got themselves into a pickle. They proposed the censure motion in an attempt to clear the commission. Having promised to vote against censure they are now threatening to switch sides if specific commissioners are singled out. Ms Green argues that, constitutionally, the parliament cannot impeach individuals and if doubts are raised, it would be better to remove the entire commission. Not only is the logic tortured but the socialists run the risk of looking soft on fraud.

Nor have the other parties played a blinder. The Greens produced an ace when the whistle-blower, Paul Van Buitenen, handed a series of documents to them. But by releasing it hastily they blew his cover because his initials were visible on the covering letter.

With European elections looming in June, MEPs have seen an opportunity to raise their profiles. As one senior commission source put it: "We are in a pre-election year - after all, they have to show they exist."

But the Strasbourg assembly is not without its own elements of sleaze. Efforts to scale back Euro-MPs' expenses and to standardise salaries have yet to come to fruition. Senior MEPs are concerned about whether the parliament is reformed enough to take on more powers. Alan Donnelly, leader of the Labour MEPs, argues: "Parliament is gaining new responsibilities but you have to ask whether its procedures are yet up to delivering the scrutiny required."

Ms Green warns that dismissal of the commission would jeopardise reform of the EU finances, the Common Agricultural Policy and enlargement. The furore could, she adds, further damage the image of the EU and weaken support for British membership of the euro.

That points to the biggest danger in sacking the commission. One Eurocrat said: "All this assumes that the public differentiates between the commission, the parliament, and the Council of Ministers. They do not. All this undermines the image of Europe as a whole."

The sleaze factor, Business