Wounded Santer clings on to power

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The Independent Online
A WEAKENED European Commission hung on to power yesterday as the Parliament drew back from its threat to sack all 20 commissioners in an epic confrontation over fraud, mismanagement and rampant nepotism in Brussels.

It defused the crisis but MEPs inflicted serious wounds on Jacques Santer, the European Commission President, and his team, shifting political power and influence from an arrogant and secretive bureaucracy to the EU's only directly elected body.

A motion to sack the entire Commission, only moved on four previous occasions, received the support of 42 per cent of MEPs.

Although a technical victory, this was a devastating humiliation for the Commission, reflected in the faces of its members as the results of the roll-call vote were read. Only 293 of 626 MEPs voted for the Commission. An especially strong slap in the face came from Germany, where MEPs from both the left and right defied their political groups to vote against the Commission. A relieved Mr Santer said he was satisfied with the outcome - it was an expression of democracy at work. "The Commission was not weakened."

Despite having suffered a near-rebellion in his own ranks from such commissioners as Neil Kinnock, he ruled out resigning and even raised the prospect of returning to head the next commission.

A resolution attacking Edith Cresson, the former French Socialist prime minister, was much more heavily defeated. Mrs Cresson survived comfortably, backed by Socialists and defecting conservatives, who were swung by Mr Santer's threat to resign if any individual commissioners were singled out for condemnation.

But the scandal-tainted Mrs Cresson could yet be pushed out. The Commission is now politically bound to comply with an independent inquiry into the allegations about her and the Spanish commissioner Manuel Marin. MEPs voted overwhelming for a resolution stating that any commissioners found guilty of wrongdoing by the end of March will be ousted, if necessary by legal means. MEPs claim they are now on the way to winning the power to force individual commissioners to resign.

The Socialist leader, Pauline Green, said Parliament had put in place the means for Mr Santer to fire Mrs Cresson or Mr Marin if they are found guilty by the tribunal. "There isn't a government in Europe that could stop him now in terms of public opinion."

Jose Maria Gil-Robles, the Parliament's president, said this could be made a permanent feature when the Commission President gains the right to reshuffle Commission portfolios under the Amsterdam Treaty.

"The Parliament must be entitled to ask the President of the Commission for the sacking of individual commissioners," he said.

The Commission's fiercest critics were livid at the defeat of attempts to target Mrs Cresson. Edward McMillan-Scott, leader of the British Tories, accused Socialists and southern European conservatives of orchestrating a "whitewash of Euro- fraud".