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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 12:08 GMT

World: Europe

Eyewitness: Tension as commissioners tumble

Jacques Santer (c) and Jose-Maria Gil Robles, President of the European Parliament, (l) receive the report.

By Political Correspondent John Kampfner in Brussels

It is half past midnight at European Commission headquarters and Jacques Santer has just slipped away from view. With the briefest of statements he has left Europe in crisis.

In the basement conference room hundreds of journalists are relaying home the dramatic resignation of the entire commission. They are also trying to work out what happens next.

Cover up culture

It all began to unfold six hours earlier at the European Parliament across town. The report of the so-called five wise people had been issued.

EU in crisis
It made for staggering reading, detailing how top commissioners, including Jacques Santer himself, had turned a blind eye to endemic corruption.

But few in the Brussels press corps believed the consequences would be so dramatic. After all the culture of cover up runs deep here.

"They try to attack our magazine and me personally. I think it's not exaggerating to say they try to destroy my existence as a journalist in Brussels," says Hartwig Nate, correspondent for the German magazine Focus.

His troubles began when he exposed fraud among agriculture officials. They are trying to sue him, so as he and colleagues delved into the report, there was no disguising his sense of satisfaction: "I am surprised how clear it is. I think that it is exactly the reality we have found during our investigations over the last three years."

Business as usual

But some fear all this will lead to is a modest clear-out of commissioners - most will be re-appointed and it will be business as usual.

Jean Nicholas of the Belgian newspaper La Meuse says it will take a lot more to crack the culture of cronyism: "You find in all the departments corrupted persons and fraud. I think if you cannot realise a more clean Europe, people outside will cease to have confidence in the european institutions."

A few yards away from the press room, leading MEPs were getting their oar in. Sharing the same podium were conservatives and greens - hardly your natural bedfellows. But unusual times call for unusual alliances.

Edith Mueller, a German green, is confidant that the new commission, whoever it is composed of, will act differently: "When we have a new commission then we can ask these commissioners to take up responsibility in a very different way.

"In future the president of the commission will be elected directly by the parliament. He has more to say in the selection of future commissioners and so he or she has probably more to say in the dismissal of commissioners."

It might seem a bit rich that MEPs should be casting moral judgement at all. They too stand accused of fiddling the books.

But Irish MEP Patrick Cox who heads the Liberal group says everyone is going to change: "We see this as a necessary catharsis. We see this as a difficult step on the way to something important. We are making that transition towards more control of the executive, towards accepting individual responsibility, and towards establishing proper standards in european life. I'm glad we're doing this - I think it is a very useful exercise of european public service. "

Even on a night like this, some cling valiantly to the european dream. But in the cold light of day it will take more than idealism to get the european institutions out of this mess.

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