The European Crisis: Vice-president refuses to let EC be scapegoat: Brussels fights back

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BRUSSELS - The empire struck back at its critics yesterday with a blistering attack against those trying to slow down the Maastricht process. An EC Vice- President, Martin Bangemann, said: 'Those who believe they can find a safe haven by going back to national identities will be desperately and bitterly disappointed and they will do everyone else in Europe a disservice. This is the message we must give citizens.

'Europe is not a Utopia for blue-eyed visionaries, it is a necessity,' he stressed. 'European monetary union as envisaged by the Maastricht treaty is a necessity as well. We wouldn't have had this split between national currencies if the treaty was in operation.'

With the European Monetary System in crisis and the political will for closer integration daily undermined by deteriorating relations between the UK and Germany, the EC Commission has conveniently served as a scapegoat.

The result has been further damage to a dented public image. Anti-Maastricht campaigners in France made play of 'faceless Brussels bureaucrats'; fear of government by an unelected group figures high on a list of popular complaints from member states.

With the French vote secured, the Commission presumably feels it no longer has to roll with the punches. A period of soul-searching has given way to a realisation that the Commission has to show it will not be dumped upon.

'Everyone who criticises the regulations that Europe gets involved in should ask themselves, who asked for this in the first place? I'm not trying to whitewash the Commission entirely, we do have to find a better way of explaining things,' Mr Bangemann said, adding: 'But some of these attacks are the stuff of German fairy tales; we are not the Brussels bogeymen.'

As the official in charge of industrial affairs and responsible for the completion of the single market, the labours of the portly Mr Bangemann have often been portrayed as those of a jolly giant at play in the land of Euro-Nonsense. It was the internal market team that allegedly tried to ban the British banger, to put prawn crisps out of business and to argue that Italy had erected trade barriers to the free circulation of condoms.

But misrepresentation, deliberate or otherwise, was ultimately damaging, the Commissioner said. 'They say I am well-paid. Fine. I can live with that. It's quite nice, actually, but such allegations hurt Europe,' he explained.

'The real struggle . . . is that part of the political class in Europe and part of the electorate don't like the idea that Europe has to accept the situation that there will be a division of competences. They want as much as possible to happen at national level and can't accept that this will make all of Europe more vulnerable.'

This is the crux of the Community's new policy of subsidiarity - the idea that all political decisions should be taken at the appropriate level.

It is the doctrine that every department is now trying to turn into a set of practical rules. Mr Bangemann suggested that the risk in all this was to hide behind subsidiarity or to use it as an instrument to ensure national governments keep their hands on the juiciest bits of legislation.

Such parochialism was self-defeating he said, citing as an example legislation on research priorities and funding. 'If we do not do this at a European level, we will just not be competitive,' he said.

For Mr Bangemann the solution lies in more open debate. He used the example of the Commission's proposed levy on blank tapes. Ninety per cent of these are used illegally to record a work and deprive an author of his royalties, the Commissioner said.

'I have made my views known, some member states (notably Britain) disagree with me, let them come and debate their views publicly. It should be a duty of everybody engaged in proposing or disposing legislation to justify why it is a decision that may be taken at a European level.'