Friday, September 26, 2003

There is Something Rotten in the Heart of Brussels

Are these unaccountable paper-pushers the sorts anyone should be eager to cede autonomy to?

EU: Commission Seeks To Fend Off Laxity Charges In Corruption Case

Prague, 25 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi must be feeling that history repeats itself with unusual speed, as he faces a barrage of questions today from European parliamentarians on alleged corruption at an important European Union agency.

Prodi and his commission took office in 2000 on a pledge of zero tolerance for corruption. That followed the resignation of the previous commission under Jacques Santer, which was beset by allegations of cronyism and mismanagement.

It was the European Parliament that forced Santer and his team to go, and in doing so, the democratic arm of the EU for the first time asserted its power to dismiss the commission. Prodi must be aware of the ominous parallel as he takes questions from parliamentarians today.

Brussels-based political analyst Ben Crum of the Centre for European Policy Studies told RFE/RL that parliamentarians must decide how hard they are going to pursue Prodi. "The question is very much to what extent the [members of the European Parliament] want to push this issue, and whether they in the end want to take the strategic choice of showing their muscle, and showing how important parliament is, by really challenging Prodi," he said. Crum said that, given the heavy fallout that a hard-line approach could bring, the deputies may decide to tread more softly.

The problem relates to the Luxembourg-based Eurostat statistical agency, which is the subject of allegations that millions of euros have gone missing as a result of double accounting, fictitious contracts, and slush funds. The allegations are contained in a report by the EU's antifraud body OLAF, which says the irregularities occurred in the course of Eurostat contracts with outside consulting firms.

Prodi formally presents the OLAF report at today's meeting with parliamentary faction leaders, along with other documentation on the allegations. Internal EU auditors say the questionable practices were set up at Eurostat before 1999. This would tie them to the discredited Santer commission, before the Prodi era.

But the question is whether the alleged abuses continued into Prodi's rule, and if so, why they went apparently unnoticed in a commission dedicated to cleaning up corruption.

Here's the part I really like:

Prodi is expected to resist demands for resignations among his commission team, particularly that of Economic Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes of Spain, who has responsibility for Eurostat. Solbes annoyed parliamentarians in July when he told them he could not be held responsible for the fact that he had not been informed of any previous malpractice at Eurostat.

Crum noted also that the European Commission has been kept weak on purpose by EU member governments, and that that fact affects its efficiency. "One of the problems that the College [of Commissioners] has is that it lacks authority. All member governments have always said that the commission and the college is not the 'government for Europe,' and the member states have been really keen to downplay the authority the commission has because they don't want it to infringe too much on their own powers," Crum said.

Crum said this limits the ability of the commission to impose itself on an administration and bureaucracy that has been in existence much longer than the commission itself.

There are two things worth noting here, the first being the shameful reluctance of EU bureaucrats to accept blame, or even to allow their colleagues to take the blame, for any wrongdoing that is discovered during their watch. It would be bad enough if Prodi were trying to simply pass the buck to an underling or a predecessor, but here he is, insisting that even Pedro Solbes should be let off the hook! The second thing that stands out is the manner in which Eurocrats never pass up an opportunity to plead for yet more powers, even when the issue at hand is the abuse of the powers they already have at their disposal. Always the solution to every difficulty is the same - "we lack sufficient authority!" One would be tempted to admire them for the insolence with which they reach out for ever greater authority, were one not enraged by the contempt for the listener's intellect betrayed by such transparently self-serving requests.

For an informed take on the accountability problems faced by the European Commission, this EU Observer article isn't half bad:

EUOBSERVER / DEBATE - Eurostat is not an exception. Eurostat is an example; indeed a very small example of what is going on for many years inside the European Commission, especially in all 'spending DGs', with large amounts of money to spread around.

Insiders know it. 'Wisemen' (such as the 'Wisemen Committee" set up after Santer's Commission resignation) know it. People closely working with the Commission know it. Brussels-based journalists know it. Citizens in Europe feel it.

The situation essentially has nothing to do with the Commissioners, nor with the idea of a vastly corrupted EU bureaucracy (most EU civil servants are honest).

But it has everything to do with the lack of only two controls - political control and judicial - which can prevent an administration, and more precisely its top hierarchy, of becoming, either entirely or partially, a bureaucracy with all its hanging processes of cronyism, corruption and privileges.

No political control and no judicial control naturally lead to illegality.

Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that the European Commission is lacking both of them:

-- Judicially, things are extremely simple. Since 1965, which saw the adoption of a strange annex inside an EU treaty - chapter V of the Protocol annexed to the EC Treaty - EU civil servants have been immune from judicial prosecution for anything that occurs within their activities, even after they retire (Yes, you did read that correctly: immunity, until they die).

Only kings of the ancient times enjoyed such protection. But at least they could be removed … because they were politically responsible (at least via a revolution).

Lifelong immunity from prosecution for civil servants - now how's that for accountability? The more one learns about the internal workings of the European Union, the less sense one is able to make of Tony Blair's desire to plunge the British populace ever deeper into the "heart" of Europe, even if he has to do so against their will. Is he really so contemptuous of the average Briton's powers of reason that he thinks his electorate incapable of making the right decisions, or is he simply so preoccupied with securing his place in history that he is willing to sell out a nation of 60 million individuals to do so?