Strasbourg, 20 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Flexing muscles it has never before used, the Parliament of the European Union yesterday strongly censured the EU's Executive Commission for mishandling the recent outbreak of "Mad Cow disease" in several of the Union's member states.
Also for the first time, the popularly elected assembly formally warned the EU's appointed executive branch that it might later this year consider dismissing all 20 EU Commissioners -- including its President, Jacques Santer. The Parliament said it might decide on that extreme and unprecedented action unless the Commission takes what the legislature called "urgent and effective" action to promote openness and consumer protection about the disease before November.
During the debate in Strasbourg that preceded the passage of the censure resolution, Santer conceded that the Commission had made mistakes in its treatment of the spread of the fatal bovine malady more precisely known as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). But he denied that the Commission had sought to cover up its errors, as the European Parliament's resolution also asserted. Santer also promised to overhaul the Commission's consumer-policy unit -- which handled the EU's treatment of the malady -- and to ask EU governments to grant the Parliament more say in health matters in general.
But all that did not stop the body from adopting the censure resolution by almost a 10 to one majority (422 for, 49 against, 48 abstentions). And the leader of the legislature's largest political group, British Social Democrat leader Pauline Green, threatened that "if (Santer's) reforms are not real, then we will table a no-confidence (in the Commission) motion," which would trigger its dismissal.
Santer's acknowledgment of Commission mistakes was extraordinarily oblique: He actually said "that the functioning of official instances under the present commission...leaves something to be desired." But however implicit his avowal, it amounted nonetheless to an unprecedented "mea culpa" on the part of Santer, the former Luxembourg Prime MInister who is now the EU's highest-ranking official. It also reflected a new power relation between the EU's Parliament and its Commission, with the legislature now having the final word over the executive branch in many areas.
The Euro-Parliament's power to appoint, censure, sanction and even dismiss the Commission is part of the increased authority and autonomy it was granted in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty that turned the old European Community into a Union. But it took more than three years for the Parliament to use that power as it did yesterday. In 1994, the Parliament held intensive, probing hearings on Commission nominations, but finally gave its approval to the naming of Santer and his 19 colleagues -- approval necessary before they could take office.
It was Germany, the 15-nation EU's most populous member, that was largely responsible for pushing through the enhanced powers given to the Parliament in the Dutch city after which the Maastricht Treaty is named. Chancellor Helmut Kohl did so in a trade-off with France's late President Francois Mitterrand who -- like his successor Jacques Chirac -- actually wanted the authority of the Union's legislature diminished and the role of its national parliaments enlarged. The federalist-minded Kohl is still seeking further enhancement of the Parliament's powers in the current EU Inter-Governmental Conference, mandated to review Maastricht and reform the Union's institutions.
As a result of the trade-off, Mitterrand had his way in drawing up the timetable for the introduction of the European Monetary Union (EMU), due in January 1999. The French leader also was deferred to in the Treaty's deliberately vague references to coming EU political and security union, which Kohl would have liked to have seen stated far more strongly and concretely.
Now the problems created by that trade-off are coming home to roost. The EMU's successful birth is by no means assured, since the standards for joining the single currency drafted at Maastricht are currently being met neither by Germany or France, nor by nine other EU members. Only Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and -- perhaps -- Ireland are currently considered eligible for EMU by objective analysts. In addition, the goal of political and security union today seems even further off than it did when Maastricht came into effect. That's because the real power in the Union is now found not at its Brussels headquarters, but in the capitals of the EU's larger members (particularly Bonn, Paris and London).
The European Parliament's flexing of its new muscles poses an additional problem for the Union -- and particularly for its Commission President. Santer, a well-meaning but far from assertive leader, now has to fight his wars on two fronts: with the Parliament as well as with the member-states' Council of Ministers (sometimes referred to as the European Council). His very survival in office depends on conciliating both the Parliament and the members' Council.
No wonder, then, that Santer's conciliatory instincts led him last week to tell an interviewer that his goal was now a sort of "federal union of independent states" -- virtually an oxymoron. Federal union is what Germany's Kohl has been seeking during the 14 years he has been Chancellor. "Independent states" is a phrase made popular -- federalists would say notorious -- by former French President Charles de Gaulle, Chirac's mentor. Reconciling the two notions could turn out to be equivalent to squaring the proverbial circle. But that is what Santer is trying to do.