Tainted Cresson fights for survival

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The Independent Online
THE POLITICAL crisis over fraud in the European Commission deepened yesterday with a scathing attack on Jacques Santer by the Prime Minister of Sweden and more calls for the sacking of two members of his team.

In a measure of the dismay felt by Scandinavian governments, even after Mr Santer, the Commission's President,promised a full clean-up on Monday, Goran Persson, the Swedish premier, wrote to him yesterday, suggesting he was trying to stifle the fraud debate.

"This issue poses enormous dangers for the Union and for the public's faith in the Union," Mr Persson wrote, "if we do not speak out against unacceptable tendencies, if we try to suppress discussion, then we do not act as responsible politicians. This is something I, for one, cannot be a part of."

He was replying to a letter from Mr Santer in which the Commission chief reprimanded him for "hurting the Union" by discussing the suspension of a Commission whistleblower on Swedish television. The letter to Mr Santer was intended to be confidential but, in keeping with the Swedish tradition of transparency, was immediately made public in Stockholm.

The resignations of commissioners Edith Cresson of France and Manuel Marin of Spain are being demanded by a majority of members of the European Parliament as their price for not sacking the entire Commission for financial mismanagement and fraud. The pressure for retribution is expected to grow today, as the Commission faces new alleg-ations concerning the wife of the Portuguese commissioner Joao de Deus Pinheiro, who is alleged to have been given a job with the Commission.

A motion of censure against the Commission, which if passed would force its 20 members to resign en masse, will be voted on in Strasbourg tomorrow but will now be accompanied by a separate resolution specifically naming Mrs Cresson, the former French prime minister and current commissioner for education, and Mr Marin, a vice-president of the Commission.

The stakes were raised last night when Socialist MEPs, the second largest group in Strasbourg, tabled another resolution demanding that Mr Santer himself resign, if individual members are "deemed culpable of financial or administrative mismanagement". The Socialists oppose what they call "cherry picking" individual commissioners but their tactic could backfire if Mr Santer ends up on trial.

Mr Marin, accused of turning a blind eye to serial mismanagement in the human- itarian aid division up to 1995, was contrite on Monday when he told MEPs he was "hurting" from the charges. But Mrs Cresson, who is being held responsible for the maladministration of EU-funded education and training schemes, angered MEPs by appearing arrogant and defensive.

Conservative and Christian Democrat MEPs grouped in the European Peoples Party (EPP) which, with over 200 members is the biggest bloc in the parliament, turned up the heat on Mr Santer, throwing their weight behind Liberal Democratic efforts to have the two most criticised commissioners forced out. But there were some signs yesterday that the commission's united front may be cracking.

Mr Santer and the Dutch commissioner Hans van den Broek appealed to the EPP's members last night not to criticise individuals. Officials believe the French government may come under pressure from Bonn today to urge Mrs Cresson to stand down. This will ensure German plans to push through sweeping budgetary reforms by March are not jeopardised.

EU diplomats yesterday said the Commission had been exposed by the Union's parliament as "living in a time warp".

"It is no longer enough to say you are innocent, you have to demonstrate it and you have to offer a credible response to allegations, or else you resign," a senior EU official said.