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EU: European Parliament Could Unseat Commissioners

Prague, 12 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in its history, the European Union's Parliament is threatening formal censure of the EU's Executive Commission, an action that would force the resignation of Commission President Jacques Santer and all of his 19 commissioners.

The European Parliament is meeting this week for its regular monthly session in Strasbourg. Last night, the 627-member body debated whether allegations of fraud and mismanagement within the Commission, and the executive body's failure to respond satisfactorily to earlier parliamentary criticism, were sufficient reasons to unseat its leaders. On hand for the debate were all 20 commissioners, including Santer who, after weeks of playing down the threat of censure, announced what he called a "zero-tolerance" policy toward fraud. He also discussed seven other elements of a "good conduct" program.

Under enhanced powers given to it by the EU's Maastricht (1991) and Amsterdam (1997) treaties, the popularly elected Parliament has oversight over the Commission's finances. Last March, it cited an "unacceptably high number of cases where execution of the budget has been inappropriate". It mentioned alleged instances of graft and cronyism by individual commissioners, and gave the Commission nine months to put its house in order. In December, Santer denied any wrong-doing and suspended a middle-level Commission auditor, Dutch-born Paul van Buitenen, for turning over confidential documents to the Parliament. He also suggested that the deputies censure the Commission collectively rather than incriminate individual commissioners.

With that, the Parliament formally declined to approve the 1996 expenditures and began preparing a censure motion, the subject of last night's debate.

Under the Maastricht Treaty, a successful motion to censure the Commission automatically forces the resignation of all 20 commissioners. For it be effective, the motion must be carried by a two-thirds majority of the deputies present, who in turn must constitute at least a simply majority (or 314 members) of the entire Parliament. In other words, the minimum number of deputies needed to pass such a motion is 212.

Today, attaining that number doesn't seem as likely as it did 24 hours ago. For one thing, Santer's contritional appearance last night has cooled the anger of many deputies. Santer told them: "Good is not enough in the fight against fraud. We must be above reproach. We must learn our lesson of the past few months...(including greater) openness toward Parliament."

For another thing, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder yesterday expressed alarm over a possible collective Commission resignation. Germany took over the EU presidency at the beginning of the month and has embarked on an ambitious program of reform, particularly budgetary reform and most particularly reducing Bonn's contribution to the Union's budget. Speaking in Bonn after a meeting with the Commission, Schroeder stated that he needed what he called a "stable" EU executive that was "able to act."

Still, some kind of clear criticism of the Commission, or of individual commissioners, could emerge Thursday (Jan. 14) morning after two days of closed-door political consultations in Strasbourg. Patrick Cox of Ireland is the leader of the Parliament's Liberals, its third largest political group and a sponsor of the original censure motion. He says: "This (debate on a censure motion) is rather a farce. We had to use the occasion of the debate last night to say (that) what we need in our rule books ... is the ability to hold the individual commissioners accountable without prejudice to the concept of collective responsibility."

Seven commissioners have been mentioned in the Parliament's allegations of fraud and mismanagement. But two in particular have been singled out for strong criticism --former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson who is Commissioner for EU Research, and long-time Spanish Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Manuel Marin, now a Commission Vice-President. If the Parliament acts against individual commissioners Thursday, they are likely to be cited.

But according to the suspended van Buitenen, the problems with the Commission go well beyond particular cases of wrong-doing in its programs. In a letter to the Parliament, he criticized the Commission's whole culture, citing what he called "the incompetence and unwillingness of the administration to deal effectively with fraud and irregularities."

That will come as no shock to those who read the annual reports of the EU's Court of Auditors on the Commission. Regularly, the EU watchdog reports that at least five percent of the EU's annual budget of $100 billion --dispensed largely by the Commission-- is lost in fraud and mismanagement. The Court of Auditors also regularly warns that the Commission is simply not capable of dealing effectively with so much money.

The real problem is that the Commission is not --or, at least, not yet-- a government, even though it is the only one of the three EU branches (with the Parliament and the members' Council of Ministers) allowed to propose legislation. How can 2,000 bureaucrats in Brussels rule over 15 countries? The answer is: with difficulty, as the Parliament's current flexing of its new muscles demonstrates.