Whistle-blower's attack mars debate on Brussels reforms

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The Independent Online
THE WHISTLE-BLOWER whose testimony helped to bring down the European Commission heaped more criticism on Brussels yesterday, despite a decision to reinstate him on full pay.

The embarrassing dispute blew up as Europe's leaders gathered to debate ambitious ideas for reform of the workings of European Union, in response to the resignation of all 20 commissioners.

Paul van Buitenen's claims of corruption and mismanagement precipitated the crisis that propelled Jacques Santer from office as president of the Commission, prompting the clean-up. Yesterday, Mr Van Buitenen criticised the authorities for refusing to drop disciplinary charges against him and for not allowing him to return to his old job as an auditor.

Instead, he will work in an equivalent position from tomorrow. Yesterday he said: "If the Commission want to remain credible, one of the steps they should take is to give me back my job as an auditor." He said his testimony, leaked in December to the European Parliament, had been vindicated by the independent experts' report that toppled Mr Santer last month.

The new attention given to the case came as the heads of government held their first discussions on reform with Romano Prodi, the former Italian premier now nominated as Mr Santer's successor. Mr Prodi has made clear he wants to construct a more heavyweight team, with no time-servers.

There is a growing consensus that the new Commission, which faces ratification hearings by the European Parliament in September, should serve for five- and-a-half years. Some commissioners, including the vice-president, Sir Leon Brittan, hoped to continue until the end of the year when they were due to retire. But this would mean Mr Prodi having to shuffle portfolios after just three months.

Other ideas include changes to the way portfolios are distributed. A reduction in the number of commissioners is seen as a longer-term objective because it would require a treaty change.

New methods of auditing and financial control, and an emphasis on the fight against fraud are expected to be agreed, but the German presidency of the EU hopes for a far-reaching debate about how the Commission can adapt to its changing role, away from initiating legislation, to managing projects. Mr Prodi's argument that the Council of Ministers, which meets in private, should be made more transparent is likely to be resisted.