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Western Press Review: Commentators Assess EU Crisis

By Joel Blocker, Dora Slaba and Anthony Georgieff

Prague, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Many Western press commentators -- in the U.S. as well as in Western Europe -- today seek to assess the effects of the ongoing crisis in the European Union's Executive Commission.

The 20-member Commission collectively -- and abruptly -- resigned yesterday. The action came after an independent report by five so-called "wise men" appointed two months ago by the European Parliament severely criticized the commissioners for allowing mismanagement, nepotism, favoritism and fraud in many EU programs.

In Scandinavia, several newspapers comment on the EU's troubles.

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: An answer might be found in the Amsterdam Treaty

Denmark's Berlingske Tidende writes in an editorial today: "In the days before a new EU Commission is appointed, the European Parliament has no grounds for seeking any further confrontation with the outgoing commissioners. But the Parliament should give some cool thought to the kind of political and administrative culture that has come to dominate the EU apparatus and bureaucracy."

The editorial goes on: "[The Parliament] should not forget that the Commission's primary task is to allocate, and exercise control over, the thousands of millions of euros that EU taxpayers contribute to the Union's budget. For many years, the Parliament has overlooked the Commission's [wrongdoings in this area] and therefore failed to come to the necessary conclusion in the form of a pink slip."

The paper also says: "As long as the European Parliament continues to insist that the outgoing commissioners bear collective guilt and thus cannot be reappointed, it will sharpen the [intra-EU] constitutional debate. It may also hinder the appointment of new commissioners that the coming new Commission president may propose but that the Parliament could oppose."

Berlingske Tidende adds: "One possible answer might be found in the [EU's 1997] Amsterdam Treaty. The treaty gave greater flexibility to the Commission's president in hiring and firing individual commissioners, as well as in moving them around from department to department and from task to task. It would be prudent to use these provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty now, although they will become binding laws only later in the year."

INFORMATION: Every end is in fact a new beginning

Another major newspaper in Denmark -- which is an EU member state -- also carries an editorial on the crisis in the EU. The daily Information writes today: "The EU imploded [this week] without a crisis pressing it either from the East [where 10 candidate states are seeking entry] or from the [EU's poorer members in the] South."

Information goes on: "Jacques Santer -- the outgoing Commission president -- never was able to get out from under the long shadow of his predecessor, Jacques Delors, who had wanted to make the work of the EU Commission less expensive and more effective. Some of the criticism [of Santer] is actually attributable to provisions [in EU law] that date back to Delors' time. But nothing can excuse Santer's failure to implement better control over the EU's administration and finances."

The paper says, too, that "it's up to the Germans [who currently hold the EU's rotating presidency] to take care of a series of [critical EU problems. That involves] saving the Commission's Agenda 2000 program [for overhauling internal budgetary policies in preparation for expansion to the East], particularly the EU's Common Agricultural Policy."

"The good news in all this," Information sums up, "is that every end is in fact a new beginning. The EU must seize the chance to reform itself."

AFTENPOSTEN: It is imperative to install a new commission as soon as possible

In Norway -- a non-EU member -- the daily Aftenposten writes in an editorial: "When the EU coughs, the tremors are felt well beyond its borders. [Many of the countries now outside the EU, including the applicant nations in Central and Eastern Europe] have bilateral and multi-lateral contacts with EU members and with the EU as a whole."

"Paradoxically," the paper continues, "many of these countries have become more dependent on the so-called 'Eurocrats' in Brussels than states that are actually EU members"

Aftenposten goes on: "With the EU due soon to make very important decisions -- such as on [the specifics of] its expansion to the East -- and the European Commission inevitably playing a central role in these decisions, it is imperative to install a new commission as soon as possible. This is a hope," concludes the Norwegian daily, "[but] unfortunately, just a hope."

Elsewhere in Western Europe, the flood of comment on the EU's troubles continues unabated. Two British dailies -- the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph -- devote long editorials to the crisis, with the FT's editorial being the second it has devoted to the subject in two days.

FINANCIAL TIMES: It would be disastrous to embark on a period of extended horse-trading

The pro-EU Financial Times writes today of "cleansing the EU stable." It says: "The high drama of the resignation of the European Commission is already a thing of the past. ... Recriminations will continue," the paper adds, "but it is up to the leaders of the EU's member states to focus rapidly on the future. They must urgently choose a new figure to head the EU executive, with a clear mandate to reform it and restore confidence in the institution."

The paper continues: "It would be disastrous for the member states to embark on a period of extended horse-trading for the top job in the Commission, as they have done so often in the past. ... The EU leaders must realize that by horse-trading for jobs, the concept of merit has been undermined. It is a short step from there to the sort of favoritism for which some commissioners stand condemned."

The FT adds: "A [Commission] president could and should be chosen, ideally at next week's EU summit in Berlin. The names of all the main contenders are known. [Foreign Minister and former prime minister] Romano Prodi of Italy and [NATO Secretary-General] Javier Solana of Spain are both good candidates."

"Whatever happens," the paper concludes, "the [increasingly powerful] European Parliament has to approve the new team. ... But it is not just the Commission that must be beware. [Member states] must also cope with new democratic curbs on their closed-door dealings. That is a very good thing."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: The EU cannot manage the responsibilities

The Euro-skeptical Daily Telegraph calls "the disgrace and collective resignation of the European Commission ... a momentous event that will decisively transform the character of the EU." According to the paper, "there is no going back to the [old] status quo after the report of the independent experts, which accuses the Commission of nepotism, mismanagement and loss of control."

The paper's editorial continues: "Some commissioners are more culpable than others. [Britain's] two appointees -- Sir Leon Brittan and Neil Kinnock -- are not accused of condoning fraud or mismanaging their directorates, But this does not mean they should be reappointed to their posts, as the Prime Minister [Tony Blair] promised [yesterday]. All 20 commissioners have colluded, by default at least, in the attempt to brush this scandal under the carpet."

The DT says further: "By any normal logic, the events of this week should halt the drive toward further [EU internal] integration. ... The scandal has shown that the EU cannot manage the responsibilities that it has already acquired, and therefore quite obviously should not be expanding its field of [internal EU] action."

Logically," the paper concludes, "there should be a retreat [in internal integration]." However, warns the editorial, "logic is unlikely to prevail [in the EU]."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: It is clear that the Commission needs a new head

Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titles its editorial on the EU "Head-Hunting." The paper writes: "The demands made here and there for a speedy-as-possible new EU Commission may prove to be illusionary. Because there is no [EU] executive body capable of making serious decisions that could submit a list of names tomorrow, that means [we are in for the usual time-consuming,] complicated search and negotiations among the capitals of all member states."

The FAZ goes on: "The current president of the European Council [of Ministers of member states], German Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder -- who is currently visiting several EU countries -- can of course first collect some views. But the whole process is going to take weeks. [Questions of principle also persist.] For instance, it has not yet been decided whether the commissioners who have resigned could be eligible for re-appointment, or whether the current political upheaval will have such a lasting effect that a radical personnel change will be considered the only adequate reaction."

"It is clear that the Commission needs a new head," the FAZ adds. "A president who does not [by EU law] have any enforcement competence but is only the first among equals must be in a position to fill this power vacuum with personal authority. This was lacking [under Jacques Santer]. ... The solution may lie in a paradox," the paper concludes. "An association of sovereign states -- each of which wants to decide on the [EU's] music -- needs a strong conductor for its most important internal organ. He surely cannot be found by arm-twisting. But to limit the damage, not too much time should be allowed to elapse [before the new president's appointment]."

DERNIERES NOUVELLES D'ALCASE: EU political leaders' words are hypocritical

In France, the regional daily Dernieres nouvelles d'Alcase -- published in Strasbourg -- carries an editorial signed by its Foreign Editor Jean-Claude Kiefer. It says that "the crisis in Brussels poses a basic question: What kind of Europe do we want tomorrow?"

Kiefer is not optimistic about swift changes in the EU's institutions in the wake of the crisis. He writes: "Since yesterday, EU political leaders have outdone themselves in appealing for institutional reform. But their words are hypocritical. They are hypocritical because member states prefer what has been called a 'commission screen' with a mandate to carry out orders [from member states] and play the role of a scapegoat when attacks are made against the Brussels bureaucracy."

He adds: "That notion conveniently forgets, of course, that everything Brussels decides is doubly approved by national governments in the Council [of Ministers] and -- to a large extent now -- by the democratically elected Strasbourg [European] Parliament." Still, he sums up on an optimistic note: "The unification of Europe has to move forward and -- why not? -- toward a federal structure in which the [new EU currency, the] euro is already a framework."

LE MONDE: The EU can find a new political fountain of youth

The French national daily Le Monde's editorial today calls the Commission crisis "a chance for Europe." The paper writes that the Santer Commission's collective resignation is "proof of the spectacular realignment of power within the EU -- to the profit of the Strasbourg Parliament."

"Above all," the paper adds, "this collective suicide of the Brussels executive offers the Union ... an unprecedented chance to better reconcile morality and effectiveness, ethics and democracy, dynamism and openness. Smothered in regulations, sullied by scandal, lolling in immobility, the EU can -- through this serious challenge -- find a new political fountain of youth and a salutary morality."

Le Monde adds: "The new commission must assume its responsibilities. It has to clean out the [body's] administrative and financial circuits, improve its decision-making process and, most of all, regain inspiration and lost energy. ... To progress, the EU needs a strong and unified commission, just as it needs an aggressive parliament."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: The essence of democracy is that it provides for orderly revolutions

Finally, the U.S.' Wall Street Journal Europe today titles its editorial "Brussels Learns Humility." The paper says that the "central question [emerging from the crisis is], 'How does this change the balance of power in Europe?' "

"One initial reading," the paper notes, "[is] that power within the EU has shifted to the European Parliament from the commission. ... One of the Parliament's very few significant powers -- never before used -- is its right to investigate the commissioners' performance and throw out the gang if it can muster the required votes. [In this case,] the gang decided to jump before being pushed ..."

The WSJ adds: "If yesterday's drama deters people like [outgoing] Commissioner Mario Monti from working to raise pan-European taxes, or his colleague Padraig Flynn from plotting to introduce more onerous workplace regulations, the outlook for the European economy could look a bit more sunny."

"The essence of democracy," the paper sums up, "is that it provides for orderly revolutions. Usually this happens in regular elections, where voters throw out officials and/or governments who [displease them. But sometimes] elected officials themselves undertake the premature removal of those who have so disgraced their office as to make their continued service untenable. Such was effectively the fate of the European Commission yesterday."