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12 March 1999

The faceless ones are in a flap

In Brussels, allegations about corruption, guns and astrologers threaten some glittering careers, re

By Stephen Bates

These are bleak days in the soulless corridors of the Breydel building, the home of the European Commission in Brussels. Since early January the place has been submerged in a tide of allegations great and small about corruption – missing money, jobs for cronies, corrupt appointments, mis-accounting – and the once imperturbable institution, the self-regarding heart of Europe, can’t cope. Those famously faceless bureaucrats, under pressure for the first time in their careers, are in a flap.

Fear and loathing stalk the place – fear that glittering careers might soon be coming to a close and loathing that it should all be so unfair. The loathing depends on who you are: if you are a southern European, you blame the Germans; if you are a commissioner under suspicion, you blame the media; if you are a northern European, you blame the southerners. Everyone is dusting off their CVs, which somehow now seem less impressive because of their association with a discredited Commission. The writing is on the wall. Within weeks of the launch of the single currency, Jacques Santer’s Commission has fallen apart.

Like all the best political crises, it has been a product of farce and incompetence. Santer, the rubicund former Luxembourg prime minister appointed four years ago and described by John Major as “the right man in the right place at the right time”, might have thought he would float serenely into retirement at the end of his term in a year’s time, garlanded with praise for the single currency.

Instead, next week he is likely to find his period at the helm of Europe besmirched with a reputation for sleaze and incompetence. A committee of wise men will be reporting on what they have found in the six weeks since they were appointed, at the behest of the European Parliament, to investigate all the allegations. It has been a rushed job and it will not make pretty reading for the 20 commissioners. Knives are already being sharpened to plunge into the elegant back of Edith Cresson, the French Socialist former prime minister, who as education commissioner has been at the heart of reports of corruption and nepotism.

Santer usually walks round with a faintly gormless smile on his cheery face. Currently he looks as if he has been sandbagged. And he doesn’t seem to have “got it”. The issue is not underhand questioning of the Commission’s reputation – “hurting the EU”, as he put it in an extraordinary letter to the Swedish prime minister, Goran Persson, soon after the crisis broke – but why corruption has for so long been regarded as a tiresome irrelevance in the corridors of officialdom.

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Allegations of fraud, as well as incompetence and mismanagement, have floated around the Commission, the European Union’s civil service, for at least ten years, but in the past few weeks they have bubbled remorselessly to the surface thanks to some extraordinary own goals by the Commission and the European Parliament which, almost in a fit of absent-mindedness, embarked on a censure motion in December. The move came just as the Commission decided to suspend a middle-ranking Dutch accountant for revealing fuller details of corruption than ever before to the MEPs.

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Paul van Buitenen, the whistle-blower, found himself declared a non-person, thrown out of the building, reduced to half-pay and, worst of all, publicly derided by the great panjandrums of the Commission. Cresson, whose appointment of her septuagenarian dentist and sometime astrologer to head the EU’s unit on Aids research has caused her much embarrassment, complained that van Buitenen was a religious fanatic – on the grounds that he went to church. M Berthelot, the said dentist, had a heart attack a month into his contract and was unable to complete more than a three-line document in that time but was still paid ten months’ salary – £36,000 – at the commissioner’s insistence.

Meanwhile, as van Buitenen’s charges surfaced, Erkki Liikanen, the Finnish commissioner in charge of administration, passed round a letter the anguished accountant had written, claiming he was in fear of his life because he had been shown guns by the Commission’s Group Four security staff. How absurd – who could think a bureaucracy would need weapons to defend itself ? Then, a few days later, the Commission admitted that, yes, it did have guns. Well, only a few. Actually, a couple of sub-machine guns and sniper rifles, if you must know. Only to protect visiting dignitaries.

Such revelations show why the Commission, a body used to dismissing as deluded those who fall out of love with the great European project, should be running scared. It is hard to dismiss the charges and, indeed, no one has really tried to do so: a missing million or two from its humanitarian and third world aid budgets; the appointment of cronies, who then went on to appoint wives, friends and relatives on inflated salaries to help them do it. Then there was money poured into non-existent schemes and money demanded in kickbacks. And darker allegations of the sexual abuse of children at the Commission’s creche, which did not stop the company running it from being reappointed.

These are not trivial matters yet they have been met not with detailed and convincing rebuttals but by arrogant and dismissive invective. Under considerable pressure from Europe’s socialist governments – not least Tony Blair’s, but also Gerhard Schroder’s – the parliament fell short of sacking the Commission in January. Things may change next week if the commissioners do not repent in the wake of the report.

Curiously, not one of Labour’s phalanx of MEPs expressed any interest whatsoever in meeting van Buitenen to discuss his allegations. Such are the seething tensions in the socialist group that when one of them, Mike Tappin, recently called for Cresson to be dismissed, he was immediately denounced by French members of the group rallying round their old comrade.

But it is not just the socialists. Sir Leon Brittan, Britain’s senior commissioner, has also brusquely dismissed approaches from Tory MEPs for van Buitenen to be reinstated. The man had made an unauthorised leak of information, puffed Sir Leon, the chap who fell out of Mrs Thatcher’s government 13 years ago for doing much the same thing.

In the grey headquarters of the Commission, a siege mentality prevails. Work has come to a stop. Commission officials shout at journalists who dare to ask questions about their commissioners. Discreet finger-pointing is going on about who is to blame.

Santer himself has consistently struck the wrong note, sounding both defensive and complacent. Everyone blames him for the meltdown. John Major liked him because he would be a quietly competent managerial sort. Unfortunately he has proved not to be so and has surrounded himself with equally complacent Luxembourgers.

And a rather interesting sub-plot has developed: Cresson and Manuel Marin, the Spanish commissioner, are blaming a Machiavellian German media conspiracy for their woes. Their argument is that the allegations are really being orchestrated by the German government, which has made no secret that it wants to cut its EU contribution, which amounts to nearly two-thirds of the entire budget. The southern commissioners are cannily warning that corruption is just an excuse and that the money the EU pours into the coffers of Spain and Portugal to pay for updating their infrastructure is at risk.

The Spanish press has been curiously muted about corruption in Brussels while playing up the German plot line for all it is worth. Portuguese journalists claim their commissioner is being picked on. The German government is getting really rather testy about all this. Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister, described the claims as absolute codswallop and has started hinting that he does not have a very high opinion of Santer’s competence.

This is dangerous stuff because if anything will break up the Great European Project it is national rivalries and the cultural, economic and political split between northern and southern states. How curious that the Commission, which has insisted so firmly on its “collegiality”, all standing up one for another during the corruption crisis, should be surreptitiously seeking to divide the member states in its moment of panic.

The likelihood is that the Commission will survive all this, though its authority will be grievously undermined. Like Bill Clinton, a man with whom he is not often compared, Santer will limp on to the end of his term when he and almost all the rest will retreat to their agreeable residences back home. Lessons have been learnt, though – it will be easier to get rid of individual commissioners in future. And it will be a long time before they put Luxembourgers in charge of the Commission again. It is like putting the chairman of the parish council in charge of overseeing the Mafia.

The writer is European affairs editor of the “Guardian”