The sourpusses of Strasbourg Fraud mismanagment and cronyism Censured in Strasbourg

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BEFORE LEAVING the European Parliament in his limousine last week, the European Commission president allowed himself a provocative joke. After denying reports that he had pondered resignation that afternoon, Jacques Santer mischievously suggested that he might be given another five-year term in office.

In fact the beleaguered Commission president faces a struggle to survive until his scheduled departure at the end of the year. Last week, Mr Santer suffered the biggest humiliation dealt to a holder of his office, a devastating blow to his credibility. And the torment may only be beginning.

In just eight weeks, the Strasbourg parliament could make another attempt to sack the entire Commission over fraud, mismanagement and cronyism.

Europe's biggest constitutional showdown for years may only have been postponed, despite a dramatic week. Thursday's censure vote had originally been called to give the Commission a vote of confidence, following a row over the EU's 1996 budget. Thereafter events spiralled out of control amid a welter of allegations about mismanagement.

It is one of the ironies of this unprecedented crisis that a parliament with its own reputation for expensive high-living should have got on its high horse about sleaze. But in fraud and mismanagement at the unelected European Commission, the Strasbourg Parliament has found an issue which resonates throughout Europe.

In contrast with the complex nature of most EU matters, here was something easily comprehensible to even the least cerebral MEP. In Germany, where public opinion has tired of footing one-third of the EU's bill, almost daily revelations of mismanagement galvanised MEPs who know they face the voters in five months.

Take, for example, the controversial Leonardo da Vinci Youth Training Project, the responsibility of the former French premier, Edith Cresson, now a commissioner. A dossier made available to the parliament details a litany of apparent abuses presided over by the Belgian-based private company which administered Leonardo. The director's wife and his future daughter-in-law were hired. The boss's net salary was found to be around pounds 6,000 a month, in the words of the auditors "well above the corresponding salary level in the private sector". His wife also took home a hefty pay packet - "an exceptionally high salary for a person without an academic degree or qualification relevant to the post".

So-called experts were found to be receiving hidden salaries via invoices for fictional services, and so lax were controls that auditors could sometimes find no evidence that work was completed. In once case an employee signed a cheque to herself worth almost pounds 25,000.

Also in the dock is Manuel Marin, the Spanish vice-president of the commission who faces questions about the administration of the multi-billion-pound humanitarian aid budget which he controlled until 1995.

What flowed from thiswas a political tussle, the latest and most serious in a long battle for responsibility between the European Parliament and the Commission. The College of Commissioners, appointed by national governments, has been the engine of European integration and presided over the EU's bureaucracy. Based in Brussels, it has a reputation for remoteness sometimes bordering on arrogance.

The parliament, by contrast, never had similar self-confidence. That is hardly surprising, because it originated in 1951 as a nominated assembly; it was only 20 years ago that the first direct elections to Strasbourg took place. The Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties vested more power in the parliament, but these responsibilities made little impact on the public.

With its absurd regular commute from Brussels to Strasbourg, and its gravy train image, the parliament has attracted few top-class politicians. Its political groupings, constructed on pan-European lines, have little relevance to domestic debate and a tendency to split. While the Commission has weakened following the departure of Jacques Delors, its former president, power has shifted to the Council of Ministers - the forum under which member state governments wheel and deal. Here was a historic opportunity to assert their role in a fluid political landscape, and MEPs were determined to take it.

Although the parliament has no constitutional right to censure individual Commission members, MEPs put down motions anyway. So when Mr Santer and his team flew from a meeting in Bonn to Strasbourg, they knew that the hour of truth was approaching. But it was on Tuesday night last week that Mr Santer dropped a bombshell. As head of a body which prides itself on collegiality he would rather resign, Mr Santer said, than face a motion singling out individual commissioners. Bluff or not, it was little short of an imminent threat to quit.

For the parliament, bringing down the Commission would almost certainly have proved a mistake, one which would have rebounded on MEPs. Not only would the chaos have been a gift to Euroscepticism, but also most of the public finds it hard to distinguish between them and the Commission. In an atmosphere of crisis, MEPs engaged in frenzied meetings as the leaders of the parliament's political groups wrangled over the fine print of the next day's voting. When Tory MEPs met Sir Leon Brittan, vice president of the European Commission, he asked them to back a concession: a committee to investigate the allegations. One MEP responded: "What's the point of offering a group of wise men when we want blood?"

In the event the parliament recorded its highest censure vote against the Commission, twice that which followed the BSE crisis. Worse, its traditional allies, the German Christian Democrats, defected.

In the words of Pat Cox, leader of the third largest group of MEPs, the Liberal Democrats, the Commission suffered "a self-induced collapse in its credibility". Even Pauline Green, leader of the largest group, the Socialists, which had initially wanted to protect the Commission, conceded that it was "damaged".

Ms Green, like several parliamentarians, was sure of another thing too. It had been, she said, a "historic moment in terms of the balance between the parliament and the Commission". The president of the European Parliament, Jose-Maria Gil-Robles, argued that power had "shifted".

But has it, and how will the events of the week change the behaviour of the Commission?

In fact the shift is a subtle one, because the events of last week centred on an elaborate power play. Mr Cox, a central player in last week's events, described the outcome as a "crab-like" step on the road to democratic accountability.

The main concession is a committee of four wise persons, two nominated by the parliament, two by the Commission. It will study the allegations of "fraud mismanagement and nepotism", including claims against Ms Cresson and Mr Marin. They will report by 15 March with the firm understanding in the minds of MEPs that, if commissioners are found culpable, heads will roll. Mr Santer also promised an eight-point clean-up plan, including codes of conduct to crack down on nepotism and cronyism.

At about the same time the issue which sparked the row - the parliament's refusal to sign off the 1996 EU accounts - will return. In April scrutiny of the 1997 accounts begins.

Significantly, the European Commission has had to accept the importance of the parliament, and for the first time there is a procedure to investigate complaints against commissioners.

While the parliament may have gained no new powers, whatever the committee decides, MEPs have acquired something more important: political leverage. The EU's only elected body has challenged the Commission over its right to call it to account over fraud and mismanagement, and has shown that it means business. That is a significant change in the politics of Europe.