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EU: Parliament Backs Away From Full-Scale Row

Prague, 14 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament has backed away from a full-scale confrontation with the European Union's Executive Commission on the question of fraud, wastefulness and nepotism in EU financial affairs.

The row between the directly elected parliament and the 20-member, appointed Commission, a body which is often accused of lacking transparency, had threatened to throw the EU into chaos.

But at a session in Strasbourg today, the parliamentarians voted down a motion censuring the Commission as a whole. They also rejected a resolution that would have directly named two commissioners persistently linked to laxness in fraud matters, Edith Cresson of France and Manual Marin of Spain.

Instead, the Parliament approved by a wide margin a generalized resolution establishing an independent committee of inquiry into allegations of fraud, mismanagement and cronyism at the Commission. The resolution effectively puts the Commission on probation until the inquiry is completed two months from now. But it stops well short of formal censure.

Commission President Jacques Santer had threatened to resign if the Parliament went ahead with the censure motion, or if it singled out Cresson and Marin by name.

Today's vote in Strasbourg therefore suggests that Santer's defiant gamble has won over the Parliament's long-cherished desire to impose greater democratic accountability on EU institutions. An added pressure on the Parliament not to proceed was the expression of alarm by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder early this week that a collective resignation of the Commission would ruin the present German EU presidency.

Germany has set itself the ambitious task in the next six months of achieving EU internal reforms, which are seen as essential to clear the way for eastward expansion of the Union. A crippled Commission would have destroyed Bonn's plans.

A contrite Santer did promise the parliament, however, that he will implement an eight-point plan of so-called "zero-tolerance" toward fraud within the Commission.

European affairs experts do not necessarily view today's events as a defeat for the Parliament, or for the democratization of the EU. The legislature, which for many years was only an advisory body, has gradually been gathering increased powers, and the fact that it has forced the powerful Commission at last to face the issue is seen as a significant victory. John Palmer, senior analyst with the Brussels-based Belmont European Policy Center, puts it this way:

"This marks a very important moment in the evolution of the European Union and in particular of the maturity of the European Parliament. It shows the growing powers of the Parliament to exercise effective control and surveillance over the Commission,...Things will never be quite the same again."

Another think-tank expert, Giles Merritt, the director of the Brussels-based Philip Morris Institute for Public Policy Research, believes the Commission has in fact suffered a defeat at the hands of the parliament:

"It is very heartening to see the European Parliament flexing its muscles, even though those muscles are not very well developed. It is also very heartening to see the European Commission in disarray and being confronted with criticism. I think for too long the situation between the EU institutions has been very static. Although the Parliament has won incremental powers over the years, it had not until now made much of a dent in the Commission's general assumption that it is unchallangable, except by the member governments of the EU."

Merritt goes on to say that the present Commission, led by Santer, will be damaged by the affair. It has been humiliated by the Parliament and made to "crawl," as he put it. On the other hand, Merritt says, the Commission as an institution has not been undermined. On the contrary, he believes it will be strengthened by the experience, in that it will be forced to consider the deeper implications of what has happened.