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European Union's executive arm survives censure vote; Embattled bureaucrats face allegations of fraud


LONDON -- In the most dramatic showdown ever between the European Union's elected representatives and its appointed officials, the politicians blinked yesterday, leaving the unelected bureaucrats in control of the institution.

Lawmakers in the 626-member European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, had threatened to fire the 20-member commission that administers the EU from Brussels, Belgium, on the grounds that the some of the bureaucrats had engaged in massive fraud and then impeded efforts to ferret out the corruption.

Instead, the parliament voted by a wide margin to create a committee to investigate further the charges of fraud and corruption related to sweetheart contracts and $5 billion missing from the EU's $107 billion budget. Commission President Jacques Santer, who earlier had enraged parliamentarians by daring them to fire him, pledged to institute the reforms.

Because the parliamentarians had raised expectations that they would stand up to the commissioners who had defied them and fired the whistle blower who called attention to the alleged fraud, yesterday's outcome was widely seen as a capitulation, not a compromise.

The motion to expel the commission was defeated 293-232. This vote was as close as the parliament has ever come to exercising its "nuclear option" of firing the entire commission. Under EU law, meant to guard against factionalism, individual commissioners cannot be dismissed.

The defeat was triggered by national and ideological factionalism, combined with intense pressure from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose government earlier this month began its six-month term in the rotating EU presidency.

Schroeder is concerned that a constitutional crisis would delay EU structural reforms planned for this year as well as negotiations to admit up to a dozen other countries to the 15-member union over the next decade. The leaders of the other 14 member nations shared Schroeder's fear about the scandal's destabilizing effects.

Because most of the allegations were directed at socialists, leftists claimed the move was a conservative plot to drive a wedge through the left-of-center governments that now control all of the major European countries except Spain. Many socialists, who take a benign view of the allegations against the commission, suggested that it is a case of mismanagement rather than fraud and corruption.

Edward MacMillan-Scott, who leads British Conservatives in the European Parliament, said the dispute was not ideologically driven, but simply an issue of accountability.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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