Prague, 15 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators are assessing yesterday's events at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Parliament did not unseat the European Union's Executive Commission for alleged fraud and mismanagement of funds, but it did manage to establish a Committee of Experts to look into the charges and review all Commission financial procedures. Some commentators see the results as a victory for the Commission, while others find that the Parliament came out on top. There is also continuing comment today on the international repercussions of Brazil's new financial crisis.
FINANCIAL TIMES: The EU needs to frame a new political constitution
Britain's Financial Times says that it was the EU "Commission (which got) a bloody nose." The paper writes in an editorial: "A democratic government might be delighted to win a vote of confidence with only 44 percent against it (as was the case for the Commission in Strasbourg). But the result of yesterday's censure motion must be regarded in a very different light. It is an important round of what may prove to be a long struggle between the Parliament and the...Commission. And the vote highlights long-standing (EU) deficiencies."
The editorial continues: "The appointment of the 20 commissioners has too often been the result of horse trading between different countries and the repayment of political debts. Once appointed, commissioners cannot be sacked individually....In this case, two commissioners were accused of mismanagement (but) the Commission as a whole, under Jacques Santer, its president, retreated behind the doctrine of collective responsibility."
The FT concludes: "The cleaning up operation promised by Mr. Santer in response to parliamentary criticism is welcome, but not enough. The EU's member states need to start the process of framing a new political constitution for the EU....In the long run, a stronger parliament is desirable. But it must earn its powers (by changing from a) terrier snapping at the heals of policy-makers (to) a guard dog with a respected bark."
WALL STREET JOURNAL: Europe's future demands the Commission work with the Parliament in the future
The Wall Street Journal Europe sees the matter differently, titling its editorial "The Parliament Shrugs." The paper writes: "The European Parliament...failed to muster enough votes to pass non-binding resolutions critical of two individual commissioners, Edith Cresson and Manual Marin. Both hail from powerful Socialist parties in France and Spain respectively....But the Cresson and Marin cases were political --a question of the commissioners' fitness for office-- not criminal matters, and hardly required proving beyond a shadow of doubt."
The paper continues: "The sheer amount of possible fraud and mismanagement already detailed (by the EU's Court of Auditors, among others) that went on under their noses should have been sufficient to convince (parliamentarians) of incompetence, at a minimum....(But now) it seems commissioners will have little to fear from the Parliament's theoretical powers of oversight until such time as it shows the willingness and ability to remove one of their number."
The editorial concludes: "Yesterday's events are a clear indication that the Commission will have to work with the Parliament in the future....This is an important signal to be sent at time when the search for the successor to Mr. Santer (in his last year in office) has quietly begun. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Parliament is willing to exercise its growing powers, or if...it will remain the relatively pliant body it has so far shown itself to be. Europe's future demands the former."
IRISH TIMES: Improved oversight and control of the Commission's activities and budgetary planning should follow
Still another perspective on yesterday's events is provided by the Irish Times, which calls the outcome "a defining moment in the development of the European Parliament's relations with the Commission and the other EU institutions."
The paper goes on to explain: "The European Parliament should not be judged by the standards of parliamentary democracy in the 15 member-states, where governments are accountable directly to national assemblies. The European Commission is not a government in that sense but an executive appointed by the real centers of political power in the EU, the national governments - albeit one with the sole right to take policy initiatives."
The IT also says that "those who have consistently dismissed the European Parliament as powerless or tame will now have to revise their views. By pushing this issue to the brink of a vote of no-confidence in the Commission as a whole, (members) have highlighted a real democratic shortcoming, the fact that individual commissioners cannot be held accountable for incompetence or wrong doing.... Improved oversight and control of the Commission's activities and budgetary planning should follow....And should the independent inquiry set up yesterday unearth evidence of fraud it will be politically impossible to resist the case for sackings or resignations."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The Commission won yesterday's struggle in Strasbourg
In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Andreas Oldag says the Commission, not the Parliament, won yesterday's struggle in Strasbourg. In a commentary, he writes: "The EU Commission is off the hook again. After a ceaseless tug-of-war behind the scenes and a series of new dodges by their parliamentary party leaders, the deputies of the European Parliament lacked the courage to punish the Commission for numerous fraud scandals."
He continues: "In recent weeks, the parliamentarians had consistently played their part in ensuring that corruption and nepotism (in the Commission) were exposed. The logical consequence would have been for the EU Commission to resign. And certainly, if Cresson and...Marin had a modicum of political decency, they would have resigned voluntarily. That did not happen," Oldag adds, "and so the decision rested with the deputies. In making it, the majority of parliamentarians meekly followed a strategy laid down by the Commission and the EU member-states. The upshot is that talks will now be continued in committee."
The commentary concludes: "The victor in Strasbourg was not democracy but the arrogance of the Brussels power cartel. Essentially, the Commission can continue in the same old way. It has the support of the member-states, which need it above all as a large piece of machinery for distributing agricultural subsidies and structural-fund money."
DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALSACE: The votes leave us with an unpleasant impression
In a signed editorial in the Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace, published in Strasbourg, Jean-Claude Kiefer says that, "despite the failure of the censure motion, the European Parliament showed yesterday that it has become a grown-up by effectively putting the Brussels Commission under its guardianship."
He continues: "That is undoubtedly a major event, indicating a new stage in the construction of (a united) Europe: Finally...a bit of democracy has been introduced in order to control the Brussels bureaucracy --a bureaucracy that has gone off the deep end and is unable to prevent fraud and embezzlement in managing an annual budget (of $100 billion,) half the size of that of France."
Kiefer concludes: "This week's heady days (in the Parliament) were very useful. They have shaken the EU 'monster' to its foundations. They have shown that the era of arrogant behavior toward the Union's citizens --as represented by the European Parliament-- is now over and done with....Still," he adds, "with all the challenges the EU now faces...we would have preferred a strong, transparent and democratic Commission. That's why yesterday's votes, despite their achievements, leave us with an unpleasant impression."
BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The Commission emerged with its reputation and credibility severely damaged
Denmark's daily Berlingske Tidende says that, "although the European Commission survived the confrontation with the European Parliament, it emerged with its reputation and credibility severely damaged. During the last year of its term in office, it will be considerably weakened."
The editorial continues: "The Commission's defeat lies in the fact that allegations of corruption, abuse of power and nepotism were serious enough to force a no-confidence vote in the Parliament. In order to save its life, the Commission had to commit itself to improving its management and to yield further powers (of oversight) to the Parliament. All this could have been avoided if the Commission had taken the original accusations against itself seriously..."
Berlingske Tidende sums up: "In the short term, the EU may have avoided a deep constitutional crisis that would have hampered the important work of reforming its institutions and expanding to the East. But in the longer perspective, the situation remains undecided...."
DAGENS NYHETER: Openness cannot be created overnight
The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter is more positive in its editorial, writing: "Instead of being an arena for lobbying, as many have feared, the European Parliament has emerged as a dominant factor in formulating and implementing EU citizens' interests....(It is becoming) a pan-European body with growing democratic impact."
By contrast, the paper adds, "the European Commission has long had a problem with uttering the word 'transparency' and putting it in practice. Openness," the editorial concludes, "cannot be created overnight."
WASHINGTON POST: The whole IMF program threatened to come apart
Writing on Brazil today, the Washington Post says: "The painful thing about latest financial anguish is that it represents the fire for which the International Monetary Fund's $41.5 billion rescue package of last November was meant to be the fire-wall. The IMF was trying to do something new and bold," the paper goes on, "to contain a crisis before it became full-blown. Brazil, as the ninth-largest economy in the world and the pace-setting economy of Latin America, qualified as a key country. The world was watching. But this week the whole IMF program threatened to come apart."
The paper argues that Brazil should follow the model of countries like Thailand and South Korea, which it says were "the first victims of this (international) cycle of devaluation and debt (but now) profess to see a light at the end of the tunnel." The editorial says the Asian countries "got there not without an international hand but mostly by strenuous applications of responsibility on their own."
The WP concludes: "No one underestimates the social pain, not to speak of the political costs, that President Fernando Henrique Cardoso must bear. But the IMF's pre-emptive bail-out represented a harsh but, in the circumstances, fair measure of what the U.S. and others could be expected to do. The dangers of a deepening and spreading of the Brazilian crisis cannot keep the IMF from hinging pay-out of the undrawn $30 billion in the IMF package on Brazil's performance from this point on."
GUARDIAN: Brazil's debacle comes at a sensitive time
Britain's Guardian newspaper warns of "the after-effects of Brazil's shock waves." The paper's editorial says: "The world's stock markets recovered some of their composure yesterday --but the knock-on effects on the global economy have yet to arrive."
The Guardian writes further: "Brazil's problems are particularly worrying because unlike the Asian, or indeed Russian, crises, they happened after an IMF rescue, not before....The worry was --and still is-- that a devaluation in Brazil, which accounts for nearly half the entire gross domestic product of Latin America, would lead to a...collapse of other regional currencies and raise doubts whether China would be able to avoid a similar fate."
The paper sums up: "Brazil's debacle comes at a sensitive time for the fragile world economy. (Japan's exports have) been hit by a strongly rising yen...Asia is still reeling from the (crisis) of the past 18 months; Russia's economy is contracting again in a very serious way; (Western) Europe's much delayed recovery is already faltering...and the biggest economy of them all, the U.S., has just completed an unprecedented seventh year of recovery buoyed up by a stock market that looks to be riding for a fall. Don't loosen your safety belts yet."
LE MONDE: The failure of this first IMF experiment has created a new source of concern
France's national daily Le Monde calls Brazil's difficulties "Act Three (of the world's) Financial Crisis." The paper writes: "The year had begun well for international finance and economics, with the successful launching of the new EU single currency. (But) the Brazilian crisis, with the devaluation of the real, has not only prematurely put an end to the pervasive 'europhoria.' It has also de-stabilized an international financial system which has just begun to recover from the Asian and Russian crises."
The editorial continues: "The (IMF's) preventative action (two months ago), designed to spare Latin America what southeast Asian nations had undergone, has failed, at least for the moment....(As a result,) the Brazilian crisis is forcefully re-launching the debate over a reorganization of the international financial system and the means for preventing crisis after crisis in the emerging nations, which poison the international economy."
Le Monde adds: "Brazil, that eternal potential world power, weighs more heavily on the international economy than Thailand or Russia. (The effects of its crisis) risk to spread rapidly through South America, then North America. The failure of this first IMF experiment in prevention has created a new source of concern for the international economy."