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EU: Eastern Candidates Unruffled By Commission's Resignation

Prague, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Central and East European candidate countries appear to be taking in their stride the shock resignation of the entire Executive Commission of the European Union.

The 20-member commission -- the executive arm of the EU -- stepped down this week (Tuesday) in an unprecedented move after being sharply criticized in a report for mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

Fears have been raised that this will lead to a loss of direction in EU affairs at a time when the 10 candidate countries are impatient to make further progress in their bids to join the EU. Selection of a new commission by member states -- including a senior political figure to replace outgoing President Jacques Santer -- could drag on until the autumn.

However, Brussels-based Central and East European diplomats are expressing cautious optimism that the enlargement process will not be severely damaged. One of them -- Vesselin Valkanov, counselor at the Bulgarian mission to the EU -- told RFE/RL:

"It is business as usual for us, but we are keeping a watchful eye on developments in the EU and hope they will find a way to settle the problem as fast as possible and to the benefit of all the candidate countries, as well as themselves."

At the Lithuanian mission to the EU, counselor Rytis Martikonis told RFE/RL he believes that, at least in the short term, the enlargement process -- particularly its technical aspects -- is still on the right track. He said he does not believe the blow to the commission as an institution will influence the process substantially. He says that -- on the contrary -- the union's institutions seem to work better in times of crisis, and that the whole affair might have a positive influence on next week's key summit (March 24/25) of EU leaders in Berlin:

"I think that the resignation of the commission has added an extra pressure (on the summit) to resolve the problems more swiftly, so as to demonstrate the capacity to act and not to let the crisis escalate."

The current president of the EU, Germany, wants the summit to agree on a package of sweeping internal financial reforms, which are considered essential if the EU is to be capable of absorbing new members.

German officials say they believe the reform package has now developed such momentum that it cannot be derailed by the events in Brussels. However, given the probable delay in appointing a new commission, the presidency of Finland -- which begins in July -- could be more heavily impacted.

A Finnish spokesman in Brussels, Reijo Kemppinen, acknowledged that the situation could become complicated. But he told RFE/RL that if the Berlin summit can clear the way for reform -- and if other factors fall into place, such as the timely nomination of a replacement for commission President Santer -- then the focus will stay on eastward expansion.

"The priorities in our presidency would be the enlargement of the union, giving new impetus to the enlargement negotiations, plus enhancing the role of the EU externally, be it the trade policy or the foreign and security policy, and questions relating to the strengthening of EU institutions vis-a-vis the upcoming enlargement."

The Executive Commission itself is anxious to dispel any impression that the work of the EU has been thrown into chaos by the sudden resignations. Officials note that that the bureaucracy below the 20 commissioners remains unaffected and is continuing with its work. Commission spokesman Nicol Wegter told RFE/RL:

"The commission is still functioning. Pending replacement, the commission and the commissioners and all services are fully functioning. Therefore, we continue negotiating, we continue giving instructions politically and so on."

The commissioner in charge of relations with Central and Eastern Europe is Hans van den Broek -- the tall, white-haired Dutchman who has become a familiar figure to millions of people in the candidate countries. It's not clear whether he wants to stand as a candidate for the new commission.

Sources in the commission say this is made less likely because he's from a political party now in opposition in his homeland, rather than in government. In addition, the report on mismanagement -- although it singled out only a few commissioners by name -- was critical of the entire outgoing team. This, too, makes holdovers from among the outgoing commissioners less likely.