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Western Press Review: EU Commission Experiences Crisis

Prague, 16 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western European press commentators today focus much of their attention on the crisis in the European Union's Executive Commission.

Late yesterday, the entire 20-member commission collectively resigned after an independent report by five so-called "wise men" severely criticized them for allowing mismanagement, favoritism and possible fraud.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The report is a damning document

Commenting on the European Commission's problems, Britain's pro-EU Financial Times calls for more "responsibility in Brussels." The paper writes in an editorial: "The report by a committee of independent experts ... is a damning document. It spares no one in its criticism, neither Jacques Santer, the president, nor the commission as a whole. It exposes not only instances of mismanagement and favoritism but a more general loss of political control over the Brussels bureaucracy."

"Most serious of all," the FT continues, the report "suggests that few, if any, members of the EU's executive body are prepared to take responsibility for their actions. That," the paper says, "is a sweeping indictment." The editorial also notes that the report specifically charges Edith Cresson -- the French commissioner responsible for science and research -- with favoritism and with failure to inform either Santer or the EU Parliament of "serious and continuing irregularities" in one program under her control.

The FT goes on to say: "Behind [such] individual actions, or rather inactions, lies a culture which must be changed if European citizens are to have any confidence in their executive. ... The report [documents] a loss of political control [in the commission]. As for favoritism, the report is equally damning of any appointments of spouses, relations or close friends without open competition."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: The report was a triumph for crusaders within the European Parliament

In a news analysis for the Wall Street Journal entitled "Commission Under Siege", Neil King and Julie Wolf come to similar conclusions about what they call the experts' "scathing" report. They note that the document also found the commission "guilty of financial bungling and widespread neglect in its handling of thousands of millions of dollars of EU business." ... "It was," their analysis continues, "a triumph for crusaders within the European Parliament who have fought for years to make a dent in the commission's armor of secrecy and unaccountability."

The analysts also underline that the report "comes at a time of particular peril in the EU's development. [EU] leaders are set to meet next week in Berlin for a summit meant to revamp how the union gets and spends its money and to chart the course for expansion in the years ahead. A crisis in confidence now could prove devastating."

The analysis argues that "a lack of leadership within the commission" is at the root of its problems. It cites one sentence in the report as being "the most damning of all: 'It is becoming particularly difficult to find anyone (in the commission) who has even the slightest sense of responsibility.' "

LE MONDE: The European Commission is experiencing the worst crisis in its history

Three French national dailies comment today on the EU's travails. Le Monde says they add up to "the worst crisis in the European Commission's history." Writing from Strasbourg -- where the European Parliament is in session this week -- analyst Marcel Scotto points up another element of alleged fraud uncovered by the "wise men" report: the use by the Commission for more than 15 years of so-called "submarines," private companies hired to recruit what are described as "temporary experts" who sometimes lacked the required expertise.

In this manner, Scotto continues, French commissioner Cresson was able to offer a high-paying job supervising the EU's AIDS research program to Rene Berthelot, a close friend from her hometown of Chatellerault. The analysis says that Berthelot's only scientific training was in dentistry, which he practiced in Chatellerault until a few years ago. Scotto also says that the report suggests that what was officially called Berthelot's AIDS "consultancy" might have been "entirely fictitious."

LIBERATION: The collective resignation recognizes the primacy of strict ethics

In Liberation -- the French newspaper that first revealed suspicions and later evidence of Cresson's favoritism -- Foreign Editor Jacques Amalric writes in a editorial today: "A new Europe, a new morality! The commission had no choice but to resign for having, according to the damning report of the five wise men, 'lost control of the administration that it was supposed to manage.' "

He continues: "The collective resignation [of the 20] was all the more necessary because the commissioners in general and President Santer in particular had allowed themselves to be taken as hostages by Edith Cresson [who had claimed, and apparently persuaded her colleagues, of her total innocence]. Today Cresson is accused [in the report] of known 'favoritism' and 'serious' responsibility in cases of fraud linked to a program of professional training under her management."

The editorial also says: "Even if the [commission's] alleged irregularities seem mere peccadilloes compared to the usual French, Italian or Greek governmental practices -- the list of countries is not exhaustive -- there's little doubt that collective resignation was the best, and last, service it could render to the construction of a united Europe. This collegial gesture finally recognizes at once the primacy of strict ethics for the commission and the necessity of a democratic control of its actions."

LE FIGARO: The union's flagship has capsized

France's conservative daily Le Figaro carries a front-page editorial titled "The Lesson" by its Brussels correspondent Baudouin . He writes: "[In resigning en masse,] Santer and his 19 colleagues have drawn the necessary lesson from the damning report by the wise men." ... "The report," he adds, "found no personal enrichment or direct fraud on the part of the commissioners. But it judged that the commission, 'as a collegial body,' bears 'a heavy responsibility' in the affairs recently uncovered."

The editorial goes on: "Several commissioners have been accused by the wise men, including President Santer himself [and, most especially, Edith Cresson] ... The report is a slap in the face for the whole Brussels executive. ... [And] for the entire EU the blow is a brutal one whose coming shock waves are still difficult to evaluate."

Bollaert recalls the "grandiose idea of [French EU founder] Jean Monnet who wanted to make the commission the motor of European unification -- a sort of 'supreme authority' with treaty-signing privileges and a virtually exclusive right to initiate [EU legislation]."

"For years," the editorial adds, "the commission functioned according to the principle, 'the commission proposes, the [member states'] Council of Ministers disposes.'... [But] the commission's supposed powers were never more than the reflection of the weakness of leadership in the member states. ... For a long time compared to a steamroller, the commission is today itself on the carpet. The union's flag ship has capsized and, behind it, the entire EU fleet is becalmed."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: EU parliamentarians now have a chance to exert real pressure on the commission

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Andreas Oldag says that "Santer hesitated far too long in holding responsible tainted commissioners such as ... France's Edith Cresson for their exemplary mismanagement. ... [Clearly,] the EU Commission is not a European government directly responsible to the people, but a fossilized bureaucracy that in many cases functions merely as the obliging executive organ of the 15 member states."

Oldag's commentary goes on: "The resignation of the commission's top functionaries could send a [healthy] political signal, making clear at last that it complies with usual democratic practice: when a minister does not have his administration under control and tolerates confusion, then he must accept the political consequences. The Brussels administration also needs to fundamentally reform its management."

He concludes: "The hope lies in the European Parliament. Following their bungled vote of no-confidence in the commission in early January, the EU parliamentarians now have a chance, after the submission of the report, to exert real pressure on the commission."

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: The failure of Jacques Santer is not necessarily a defeat for the EU

The Swiss daily Tribune de Geneve carries an editorial signed by Peter Meyer. He writes: "The failure of Jacques Santer is clear, even if the report finds him personally innocent. Lacking in charisma, the former Luxembourg prime minister -- who was picked for the job only after Britain vetoed the appointment of ex-Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dahaene four years ago -- has simply not been up to the task."

The editorial continues: "This was a political fiasco virtually programmed from the start [of Santer's tenure in 1995], despite some undeniable successes: the launching of the [new EU currency, the] euro, the opening of negotiations on the enlargement of the union and the EU's preparation of fundamental reforms under the [commission's] label, 'Agenda 2000.' "

Meyer adds: "Despite this basically technocratic positive accounting, Jacques Santer and the commission stumbled when it came to the political portion of their mission. Where [Santer's predecessor,] Jacques Delors [of France] knew how to excel through unparalleled toughness, brio and combativeness, Santer demonstrated more than all else the limits of pragmatic management." ... "But all is not lost," Meyer concludes, "The defeat of Jacques Santer and his commission is not necessarily a defeat for the EU."