Prodi deputy in new sleaze denial

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THE MOST senior woman in Romano Prodi's "sleaze-free" Brussels team was denounced as arrogant and unsuitable for office last night after three hours of hostile questioning at a confirmation hearing ended with a bitter political row.

At the end of the first American-style grilling for incoming European commissioners, a leading socialist MEP attacked Loyola de Palacio, the Spanish vice-president designate and a former Spanish agriculture minister, for denying responsibility for a scandal over the allocation of EU subsidies to Spanish farmers.

The row raises the prospect of another power struggle between the MEPs and the commission, in the wake of the crisis which brought about the mass resignation of Jacques Santer's team in March.

With the backing of the dominant centre right MEPs Ms de Palacio may be in no immediate danger. But yesterday's clash sets the tone for seven more days of aggressive cross-questioning which will decide the fate of the commission.

In a series of forthright exchanges yesterday, Ms de Palacio declined to agree that her situation would be untenable if a judicial inquiry in Spain finds that she has a case to answer. Instead she cited a report by a Spanish parliamentary committee which concluded that she "should not be held politically responsible" for the scam.

Only after two hours of grilling did Ms de Palacio promise to resign if events similar to those that brought about the fall of the last commission are repeated. Alan Donnelly, leader of the 30 British Labour MEPs, said the 180 strong Socialist group could not support her candidature, adding: "She seemed to be very arrogant ... There is no way we could make the recommendation that she should be a member of the commission".

Centre-right MEPs are sympathetic to Ms de Palacio but have threatened to withhold their support from incoming commissioners they have targeted. Constitutionally they cannot veto individuals but could reject the entire team of 14 men and five women in a vote in two weeks time. However the parliament is pushing the limits of its powers, with Christian Democrat MEPs threatening to hold a vote on the suitability of each commissioner at the end of individual hearings.

Mr Prodi has already rejected the idea of re-modelling his team unless there is new evidence against members of his team and is willing to resign if it is not endorsed. That raises the prospect of another battle of wills should one set of hearings go particularly badly. Ms de Palacio is only one of a number of would-be commissioners who can expect to face a similar roasting.

Top of the hit-list is Pascal Lamy, the Frenchman nominated to the external trade portfolio, most notably because of his role as chef de cabinet to the former commission president Jacques Delors. Antonio Vitorino, the Portuguese commissioner-designate, is expected to face questions over his tax affairs and Philippe Busquin, the Belgian nominee can expect questions on his role in the Socialist party which was rocked by a scandal ending in the trial of Willy Claes, Belgium's former Nato secretary-general. Mr Prodi himself still faces lingering questions over his business activities.