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Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Diary: Fraud fever in the EU

This the first of an occasional series of diary reports that Angus Roxburgh will be filing for BBC News Online from Europe.

September: Eurocrats, euro-MPs and euro-hacks head back to Brussels from drier climes to face a new term - and old obsessions.

Ever since the night when Jacques Santer appeared at an emotional news conference and actually resigned, I have had qualms about it all

The great perennial, much beloved by journalists because it makes the EU look exciting, is corruption - fraud, mismanagement, the kind of thing that brought down the last European Commission in 1999. This month there were two stabs at it.

The first started during the summer break, when it emerged that the commission's chief accountant, Marta Andreasen had been sacked after refusing to sign off the EU's accounts and complaining that its systems made it almost impossible to keep accurate records and fight fraud.

Commissioner Neil Kinnock, the man who for the past three years has been reforming the EU's civil service precisely to prevent corruption, was hauled before the European parliament's budgetary control committee, some of whose members seemed to scent a chance to bring down another Commission.

Cresson pursued

Edith Cresson
Edith Cresson: Gave sinecure to dentist
A week later, an accountant from the EU's court of auditors in Luxembourg, Dougal Watt, claimed systematic fraud in his own organisation was being covered up - and that he was now on sick-leave, in fear of his life for daring to expose it.

It all brought back memories of the heady days of spring, 1999, when journalists hounded commissioners, publicised the dossier' of a whistleblower, Paul van Buitenen, and encouraged MEPs to demand the Commission's resignation.

The report by five 'wise men' found little evidence of corruption

I even played a small part myself, chasing after the French commissioner, Edith Cresson, with a camera and microphone, demanding to know why she had appointed her dentist and friend to an EU sinecure.

But ever since the night when the then Commission president, Jacques Santer, appeared at an emotional news conference and actually resigned, I have had qualms about it all.

Tiny losses

The report by five "wise men" appointed by the parliament, which led to the resignation, after all, accused the Commission of "loss of control" but - apart from Cresson's "clear-cut case of favouritism" - found little evidence of corruption.

Terry Wynn
Terry Wynn: No reason for Santer commission to quit
And so, when I found myself having dinner in Strasbourg this month with a veteran British MEP, Terry Wynn, who chairs parliament's budgets committee, I asked him what he thought about all this fraud fever.

He pointed out that the amount of money that goes missing from the EU's budget each year is tiny compared to comparable organisations - and that the blame for it lies not with the Commission but largely with the member states who are responsible for spending the money.

And the same was the case back in 1999, when parliament had refused to pass the EU's accounts.

"So do you think, looking back, there was no real reason for the Santer Commission to have resigned?" I asked.

"Absolutely!"

Unhealthy cabal?

Hm. The thought crossed my mind that at the time one British newspaper remarked that parliament's overthrow of the Commission "could presage the dawn of a genuine European democracy".

It had seemed to many of us like that.

The much-derided European Parliament had finally done something other than dishing out lavish perks to its members: it had brought down the evil Commission.

Now I wonder whether it was not really brought down by an unhealthy cabal of bored journalists and trigger-happy MEPs.

  • Battle for Europe's soul

    Which brings me to the other quiet happening of the month: the deliberations of the Convention on the future of Europe.

    The constitution will be the subject of the most acrimonious argument ever

    This is the great debate led by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, which will recommend, among other things, how the three centres of European power - parliament, commission and national governments - will work together in years to come.

    I am struck by two things as this scarcely noticed body grinds on with its work.

    One is that even the British Government now seems to accept that the document which will emerge at the end of it will be a European Constitution, something Downing Street had fought against for years.

    The other is that the arrangements that are finally formalised in that constitution will be the subject of the most acrimonious argument ever, with the three centres of power all desperately bidding for greater influence.

    It is a battle for the soul of Europe, which will make the odd spot of fraud or corruption look like child's play.


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    29 Mar 99 | Europe
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