Candid Sir Leon woos the MEPS

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The Independent Online
Martin Bangemann has had a lot of good ideas while he has been a European Commissioner, as well as some not so good ones. A proposal from his officials, which Britain feared would deal a death-blow to prawn cocktail flavour crisps, led to the unfo rtunate German being pursued through Brussels by journalists waving bags of nibbles.

At least Mr Bangemann, Commissioner for Industrial Policy, had some concrete ideas and was prepared to expound them. The hearings before the European Parliament, which the assembly has convened before it votes to approve the new Commission, have so far been mainly an opportunity for exercising some well-tried and trusted cliches.

Sir Leon Brittan was all smiles and good nature as he confronted the European Parliament yesterday. It was sadly true, he admitted, that the recent reorganisation of the European Commission had not been entirely for the good. The fact that Sir Leon resisted this reorganisation, and became a last-minute casualty as parts of his portfolio were stripped from him, may have had something to do with his candour.

Sir Leon's answers to his questioners repeatedly returned to the subject of his book on European integration, in which, he reassured several MEPs, the answers to the most profound queries could be found. The book was even being translated into German.

This is not to say that there is anything remotely frivolous about the proceedings. The hearings are being taken very seriously by the MEPs and Commissioners alike, with Sir Leon asked to comment on everything from Chinese copyright piracy to Newt Gingrich. All the Commissioners know that, without the consent of the Parliament, their jobs are on the line.

Apologies were given to one MEP for the delay in replying to a written question last year; compliments lavishly doled out; an Austrian MEP was greeted with comments on the delights of Salzburg.

All of this is in the interests of democracy. Though the Maastricht treaty gave the Parliament the right to approve the Commission, the idea of hearings was pinched from the US Congress, where each nominee for high office must pass muster before the appropriate committee.

Of course, the factor that has marked out congressional hearings in recent years has been the exploration of personal histories, of drinking exploits, pubic hair on tins of Coca-Cola, financial irregularities, membership of dodgy organisations and teenage experiments with marijuana. There was not a sniff of this in the European Parliament. Perhaps the question that the Parliament should have put to Sir Leon was: Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Conservative Party?