Prague, 16 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The resignation of the entire Executive Commission of the European Union has raised fears that the effort to admit new member states from Central and Eastern Europe may be slowed.
In an unprecedented move, the 20-member commission, including its president, Jacques Santer, stepped down overnight. The move followed within hours the publication of an independent report which harshly criticized the commission for failure to control mismanagement, fraud, and cronyism.
The affair is the climax of a struggle between the powerful, unelected commission and the European Parliament, an elected body which is seeking to strengthen democratic accountability in the EU. In January, the parliament threatened to topple the commission in a censure motion unless the allegations were properly investigated by an independent panel. The report of that panel, as now issued, criticizes by name only some of the commissioners, but it also accuses the entire commission of general irresponsibility. It thus badly damaged the credibility of the whole body of commissioners.
Some European affairs specialists believe the dramatic resignation will hamper the union's ability to admit new members. Giles Merritt, director of the Philip Morris Institute for Public Policy Research in Brussels, told RFE/RL:
"It has come at a very bad moment. It will disrupt the attempt to find a new budget deal to finance the enlargement of the EU to include the Central European countries. And it will make more difficult the task of building an authoritative new commission under the leadership of a senior political figure."
The crisis cuts through the mid-point of Germany's six-month EU presidency, which has been dedicated to achieving complex internal financial reform, seen as necessary to open the way for eastward enlargement. Key points of the reform package are still being negotiated, but Germany has set a deadline of next week for the entire package to be finalized, at the Berlin special summit of March 24-25.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was to hold a previously unscheduled meeting with Santer in Brussels today to discuss how the developments could affect Germany's EU reform plans. Meanwhile, the Germans are seeking to calm concerns. A low-key statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Bonn notes that the Santer commission will remain in office in a caretaker capacity, and that this will allow forward movement to be achieved on the reform package.
A German official in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that the momentum of the reform process is such that it will not be wrecked by the collapse of the commission. She said the agenda for Berlin is already set, and the heads of state and government will be taking the final decisions there, not the commission.
She also said the German view is that the commission will still be able to work adequately in a caretaker role on business already in hand. But she said it will be crippled in terms of its ability to take new initiatives.
In effect, that means that the EU's preparations for expansion could remain undamaged in the short term. But the true impact of the crisis could be felt later in the year. As yet, it is not clear how long it will take EU member states to appoint a new commission, and for the European Parliament to approve it. Parliamentary elections are set for June, and if the matter is not decided before then, it could drag on well into the autumn. This would likely hinder the coming Finnish presidency's plans to focus on eastward expansion.
The outgoing commission is in deep disgrace, but commission President Jacques Santer remained defiant at a press conference in Brussels today. He claimed that the report did not take sufficient account of reforms carried out by the commission itself in recent years. Santer:
"The report sets out in detail a limited number of specific cases of mismanagement and favoritism. But there is absolutely no indication of personal fraud or corruption by any member of the commission. In creating from this limited number of cases a picture of generalized irresponsibility, the report is creating a false impression."
At least some analysts have some sympathy with Santer's position. John Palmer, deputy director of the European Policy Research Centre in Brussels, told RFE/RL:
"I think it is going to be a very healthy catharsis for the Commission. What has come to light is the problem created by being given tasks, for which it was not given the human resources to cope with. The commission plays an essential part in the development of the EU, but in recent years it was asked to do something completely new, to run large-scale funding programs for which it did not have the management expertise, and this created the problems which have now come to light."
Palmer says financial management has been poor because the commission has not been equipped to achieve it, and has not had the internal culture which prioritized it. He says that from now on, this will have to change.