Prague, 11 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on two main subjects. One is a motion of censure of the European Union's Executive Commission due to be voted on later this week (Jan. 14) by the EU's Parliament in Strasbourg. The other is a unanimous agreement by the U.S. Senate on a procedural outline for the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
IRISH TIMES: This is an important political dispute
The Irish Times today says that "an escalating war of words may culminate this week in a vote by the European Parliament to sack the European Commission over its handling of fraud allegations. The dispute," the paper explains, "arises from arguments about the EU's 1996 budget, especially how two commissioners handled their portfolios. While the extent of the alleged fraud is not large and does not concern any of the EU's most heavy areas of expenditure, this is nonetheless an important political dispute coming at a critical time in the Union's evolution."
The editorial continues: "(The vote) takes place ahead of the European Parliament elections next June and at a time when there is much public disenchantment with the state of democratic accountability in the EU --and therefore of its political legitimacy-- as it embarks on the single currency, much the most ambitious development in its recent history. There is, in several member-states, a widespread perception that the Commission is an over-centralized and too powerful bureaucracy which needs to be taken down a peg or two."
The Irish Times concludes: "Commission President Jacques Santer will have his work cut out this week to head off such a vote, calm the overheated atmosphere and convince (deputies) that he has handled the matter fairly and effectively. But even if he is successful, this episode highlights a number of shortcomings in the EU's political system. Despite the greater powers given to the Parliament in the Treaty of Amsterdam, including the right to approve the President of the Commission, it is still not possible for it to pass a vote of confidence in an individual commissioner as distinct from the Commission as a whole."
LIBERATION: The Union suffers principally from a lack of democratic legitimacy
Two reporters who have investigated fraud in the EU Commission for the French national daily Liberation, Jean Quatremer and Pascal Riche and today strongly support the censure motion in a commentary entitled "Vive l'Eurocensure". They write: (The EU), already a federal monetary power, has a chance to take an additional step toward political union (by the Parliament passing the censure motion)."
The commentary goes on: "While the young euro is taking its first steps, such a vote would be a healthy electro-shock. We all know the diagnosis: the Union is an economic, financial and monetary giant, but it remains politically and diplomatically a dwarf. Yet it's hard to imagine an integrated monetary zone surviving for long without... strong institutions that are independent of national governments."
Quatremer and Riche also say: "The Union suffers principally from a lack of democratic legitimacy. Thus the Commission, which often speaks of itself as (the EU's) "government," is composed of commissioners named by the leaders of the 15 member-states....In recent years, because of (Santer's) weakness, the Commission has not become more independent, but rather has (subordinated itself) to the (members') Council of Ministers. In other words...it has been transformed into an administrative secretariat for the Council..."
FINANCIAL TIMES: The EU Commission and the European Parliament could end up weakened and discredited
Two British dailies also comment on the upcoming European Parliament vote. The Financial Times says that "motion amounts to the constitutional equivalent of a nuclear weapon: if approved by a two-thirds majority, the 20-member Commission would be forced to resign, and the activities of the EU would be brought to a virtual standstill." For that reason, the FT's editorial urges that "members of the parliament should think long and hard before they press the button. Both institutions could end up weakened and discredited."
The paper continues: "It is understandable that the Parliament is angry and frustrated. The charges against the Commission are of mismanagement and cronyism, leading in certain cases to outright fraud....Santer...and his colleagues have failed to provide adequate reassurances that the cases are being properly investigated....They have brought the censure motion on themselves, by insisting that they stand or fall together."
The editorial says the Commission's stand "may prove to be a false solidarity." The FT believes "there may grounds for naming and shaming individual commissioners (who) should be prepared to confront the European Parliament and explain themselves. If they cannot do so, they should...do the honorable thing: resign."
DAILY TELEGRAPH: What is left of the EU's reputation hangs on the European Parliament vote
The Daily Telegraph says: "That there is systematic fraud in Brussels will not have come as a surprise to many. But," the paper adds, "the EU's back-handed response to the latest disclosures has astounded even its fiercest opponents."
The paper goes on: "The Commission has shown itself to be tolerant of corruption, but intolerant of criticism. It now falls to the European Parliament to determine whether the EU, as a whole, can retain any integrity." The scandal, the DT says, "focuses on the revelation of malpractice in a series of projects (that) channel funds to southern Europe. Not only has the Commission turned a blind eye (on the fraud), but there is evidence it has deliberately frustrated police investigations."
"On Thursday," the editorial says, "(deputies) will vote on whether to dismiss the Commission and --conscious no doubt of the (June European Parliament election) -- they may well seize the opportunity to demonstrate their muscle. What is left of the EU's reputation," the paper concludes, "hangs on their vote."
USA TODAY: Last week's spirit of comity should help guide the senators
Addressing the U.S. Senate, the national daily USA Today urges: "Keep the (Clinton) trial focused". The paper says that, "for the moment at least, the Senate appears to have cooled the partisan fires of impeachment. The trial of the president will open with dignity, as opening arguments are heard and questions are asked by 100 senators who agreed unanimously on the process."
The editorial continues: "Even when the divisive question of whether to call witnesses returns, last week's spirit of comity should help guide the senators to a reasoned solution. Less clear," it adds, "is how the White House will manage the new climate, which is not necessarily to its benefit. As the distractions of partisanship fade, and the sexual aspects of the scandal are eclipsed along with them, the clearer becomes the focus on the core accusations --perjury and obstruction of justice."
The paper concludes: "Few would deny Clinton the right to mount the 'vigorous, successful and complete defense' he has promised. But that should not come at the expense of shoving the proceedings back into the muck and mire from which the Senate has just painstakingly rescued it."
WASHINGTON POST: In the Senate complicated matters tend to be fought out in terms of procedure rather than substance
In an editorial yesterday, the Washington Post similarly praised the Senate's unanimous agreement late last week, calling its procedural outline for a trial "a heartening development. Finally," the paper said, "the politics and merits of the issue may be coinciding in a way that will produce a credible result."
The WP continued: "As so often in the Senate, complicated matters such as these tend to be fought out in terms of procedure rather than substance. The procedure becomes a code for substance....What the Senate unanimously agreed to do Friday was to decide (none of the important substantive issues) in advance."
Instead, the paper noted, "it will hear the opening statements (on both sides); then motions will be in order both to adjourn or otherwise limit the proceedings and to hear particular witnesses. Possibly there will be fights then, but the idea is to see how it goes. That's not bad. What we're spared, at least for now, is the transparent partisanship on the part of both parties that cheapened the (impeachment) proceedings in the House."
TRIBUN E DE GENEVE: Clinton should be acquitted
West European papers also comment on the Senate action and Clinton's problems. Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve today carries a signed editorial by Andre Naef, which says: "The U.S. Senate likes to call itself 'the greatest legislative organ in the world.' Horrified by the outrageously partisan spirit shown by their colleagues in the lower house...the 100 senators were determined to show impartiality and moderation when they opened the impeachment trial of President Clinton."
But Naef warns: "The senators' unanimous accord on procedure is no more than that: they've just put the big problems aside, and it's a safe bet that their 'bipartisanship' will not survive beyond the postponed debate on whether or not to summon witnesses, notably Monica Lewinsky."
Speaking for the paper, Naef adds: "In our view...Clinton should be acquitted, pure and simple....The only real uncertainty now concerns the trial's length.....But whatever ensues, Clinton is likely to win the trial, and there will be no further talk about a motion of censure...That will leave it up to history to make the final judgment."
AFTENPOSTEN: If the Clinton's trial is short, the U.S. will soon be able to return to being a superpower
Norway's Aftenposten says in an editorial: "If the Clinton's trial is short, the U.S. will soon be able to dispense with this self-inflicted nuisance and return to being a superpower. If it is long," the paper goes on, "both the Administration and the nation risk becoming a laughing stock for an unforseeable length of time --during which, it is expected, there will be many bitter cross-examinations of witnesses, all of whom will try in their own ways to clarify the President's sex life."
The editorial goes on: "A prolonged trial will harm the Republicans. Trent Lott, their Senate leader, understands that and therefore favors a quick decision....But a long trial will harm (Clinton), too, since he will be confronted by the conservative (Chief Justice) William Rehnquist, a political foe. And abroad," the paper concludes, "a (long) trial will be seen as damaging U.S. credibility".
BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: An impeachment trial should never be used as a political weapon
In Denmark, the daily Berlingske Tidende comments: "No-one really doubts Rehnquist's ability to conduct a (fair) trial.... Even (Rehnquist's political) opponents do not think he will be influenced by his own (conservative) beliefs."
The editorial goes on: "Perhaps a part of the explanation is to be found in 'Grand Inquest,' Rehnquist's 1992 book, in which he describes, among other things, the only other (presidential) impeachment process in U.S. history (against Andrew Johnson in 1868). He says (in the book) that an impeachment trial should never be used as a political weapon."