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EU: Germany Seeks Summit On European Commission

Munich, 19 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - Germany says it may propose hosting a special European Union summit this month to deal with the crisis in the EU's controlling body, the European Executive Commission. Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

The move follows the resignation of all 20 commissioners in the wake of a major scandal over mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.

The Bonn Foreign Ministry said yesterday the resignations had left what it described as a "power vacuum" at the heart of the European Union which severely limits its ability to act in many areas. The Commission drafts laws for the European Union, is responsible for many of the hundreds of projects which come under the EU umbrella and is also the watchdog of its treaties, ensuring that they are honored.

Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has already said the crisis will be discussed at a long-planned EU summit meeting to be held in Berlin next week (March 24/25). But that meeting was called specifically to discuss a controversial reform of the European Union's finances and agricultural policies and most governments agree that there will be little time to give proper consideration to the crisis in the European Commission.

German diplomats said yesterday that Schroeder was promoting the idea of a another summit meeting shortly after the Berlin conference to deal with the European Commission. Schroeder has been touring all EU nations this week for talks ahead of next week's summit. Yesterday he was in Spain.

The European Parliament, which played an important role in uncovering corruption at the commission, also wants a rapid solution. It has proposed that the new president of the European Commission should be presented to it at a parliamentary session beginning on April 12.

The 20 members of the European Commission resigned on Tuesday after an independent panel of investigators released a report disclosing poor management and various forms of corruption. The report disclosed hiring of friends and relatives for well-paid jobs, fictitious bank accounts and widespread lack of control. Although the report was critical of the Commission as a whole, most of the charges involved only a few commissioners while Commission President Jacques Santer was held responsible for the poor management which allowed the abuses to go unchecked. Santer, a courtly politician from Luxembourg, has often been accused of being too soft in managing the powerful interests which seek to influence the Commission, although he has tried to introduce reforms.

The question is -- what happens now? The first problem to be decided by European governments is whether the Commission and its president should be replaced immediately or should the present system continue on an interim basis until its term of office expires on January 6 next year. In that case the Commission and its president would be allowed to perform only current and urgent business and not undertake any new initiatives.

Diplomats in Bonn say almost no senior politician in Europe is interested in being appointed president just until next January, when someone will be chosen for a full five-year term. One solution being considered is appointing one of the commissioners who was not criticized as an interim president until January. Among those mentioned are Karel van Miert, the Dutch commissioner in charge of competition or the Englishman Leon Brittan.

Another question concerns the future of the commissioners who were not criticized in the report. A few governments, including Britain, have already said they want to retain their present commissioners because they have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Others argue that "fresh faces" are needed if the Commission is to win any respect from a skeptical European public.

At a minimum most governments want the departure of the most sharply criticized commissioners, particularly Edith Cresson of France. Diplomats say it's certain Santer will have to leave soon. Schroeder and some other leaders have ruled-out the possibility of him staying in office until year's end when his term expires.

But who would replace him? Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who carried out a considerable reform of Italian politics, is considered by many to be the front-runner. Other prominent names are said to have declined the post, including the Spanish Secretary-General of NATO, Javier Solana, and Portugal's Premier Antonio Guterres. German reports say Prodi told Schroeder this week he would take the European presidency only if it was offered for a full five years.

The crisis in the European Commission has come at an uncomfortable time for the EU. Next week's summit meeting in Berlin is already considered a crisis situation. It is supposed to agree on a program known as Agenda 2000, which will help open the way for Central European countries to join.

The present proposals seek politically-painful decisions on the agricultural policies which benefit France but take up a large portion of the EU budget, on the economic aid given to Spain and on the budget rebate given to Britain 15 years ago. These governments and others are reluctant to surrender benefits which could cost them votes at home. A new problem arose this week when France said it wanted to re-open discussions on a package of agricultural reforms which other EU countries had settled earlier this month.

German diplomats in Bonn said yesterday the two crises coming at the same time was worrying for the European Union. Elections to the European Parliament are being held in June, and diplomats fear that the crises could further damage the already-battered public image of the European Union and lead to a low turnout at the elections.