European (dis)Union; Chiefs fall: Fraud charges cry out for more accountability in supranational regime.


THE mass resignation of the European Union's 20 commissioners, under a cloud of scandal, paralyzes the 15-nation economic giant. The solution of that crisis should strengthen the structure.

The commissioners, whose terms expire at year's end, will stay on as caretakers. This sharpens current negotiations among member governments to revise the expensive farm program.

It heightens public interest in the normally apathetic June election of the 626-member European Parliament, thought superfluous until now.

The EU crisis may also, unfortunately, paralyze negotiations in a damaging trade war with the United States. Washington is engaged in a dispute with Brussels over EU preferences on bananas, aircraft noise rules and the EU ban on U.S. hormone-treated beef.

Acting together

The quick solution both sides seek may elude them if the EU cannot get its act together. Its trade negotiator, Sir Leon Brittan of Britain, is untarnished but on caretaker status with the others.

The European Union pools the sovereignty of 15 countries with 370 million people for economic purposes. Its 19,000 civil servants run a customs union and single market, agricultural price supports, product and safety standards and other programs in a budget approaching $100 billion.

The "Eurocrats" are supervised by the 20-member commission of politicians appointed by national governments. They serve five-year terms as the equivalent of a national cabinet. This is the body that was forced to quit.

The budget and legislation the commission proposes must be approved by the directly elected European Parliament. That body otherwise lacks power except to censure the commission, bringing it down. This it was about to do.

Suspicious of corruption, the parliament had forced appointment of a panel to investigate the commission. It reported fraud and lack of accountability in the civil service, mismanagement and nepotism by commissioners.

Unexplained expenditures

Allegations include expenditure of $1 billion that is not explained. The commissioner for education and research, a crusty French former prime minister named Edith Cresson, hired an old friend to do nothing and gave a lucrative contract on AIDS research to her hometown dentist. Like the late French singer, Edith Piaf, Mme. Cresson regrets nothing.

The head of the commission is Jacques Santer, former prime minister of Luxembourg. He was supported for the job by a British Conservative government wanting a political conservative who was not forceful, and is opposed by the current British Labor government for those attributes.

The commissioner for consumer affairs, Emma Bonino, is running for president of Italy. The centrist former prime minister of that country, Romano Prodi, is tipped to replace Mr. Santer. His leftist successor, Massimo D'Alema, strongly supports moving Mr. Prodi to Brussels. In Europe, too, all politics is local.

In the confusion, more power accrues to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, who has just consolidated authority over his own government. Germany holds the rotating presidency of the EU for this six months and Mr. Schroeder must lead the way out of the mess.

This is a growing pain for supra-nationalism. All sides call for more accountability. But to whom, the directly elected parliament or the member governments? No major player calls for rolling back the European Union. It is here to stay, and to grow.

Pub Date: 3/20/99

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