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Thursday, January 7, 1999 Published at 13:21 GMT

World: Europe

EU chief: No fraud cover-up

An uncomfortable Jacques Santer faced the media

European Commission head Jacques Santer has admitted that there have been "irregularities" in the financial management of the EU executive body.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale: "There are heads that the MEPs want to see rolling"
However, Mr Santer told the BBC that there had been no attempt by his commission to cover up alleged incidents of fraud and corruption.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the commission are decent and honest and working extremely hard in often very difficult circumstances," Mr Santer said on Radio 4's Today programme.

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His comments come amidst a growing row over allegations of fraud and corruption. Next week, the European Parliament is due to hold a censure vote on the commission.

The vote was called after the parliament refused to clear the EU's accounts.

Mr Santer said fraud allegations in the past referred to certain humanitarian dossiers that remained from the previous commission.

Jacques Santer: "We discovered ourselves there were some flaws in humanitarian dossiers"
"I have and my colleagues have been transparent with the European Parliament that all dossiers coming under my commission were dealt with by the European Parliament," he said.

But MEPs are talking about holding votes of confidence on individually-targeted commissioners, some of whom would almost certainly fail the test and come under great pressure to resign.

Mr Santer said he himself asked for a vote of confidence to be held in the interests of the commission's future.

"I want to have a strong commission because we have a lot of work to be done in the future, and therefore, the commission is responsible...before the European Parliament," he said.

Whistle-blower suspended

In recent months, the commission has faced repeated allegations that it mismanaged the EU aid budget and hired staff through outside consultancies or contractors.

Angus Roxburgh reports: Paul van Buitenen feared for his safety for blowing the whistle on EU fraud
Earlier this week, a commission official accused it of trying to silence him after he found evidence of widespread fraud.

Paul van Buitenen, a Dutch member of the commission's financial control unit, was suspended on half-pay in December after sending the European Parliament a damning report alleging that fraud was more widespread than previously acknowledged.

Mr van Buitenen says he found evidence of a cover-up by senior colleagues.

"I found strong indications that ... auditors have been hindered in their investigations and that officials received instructions to obstruct the audit examinations," Mr van Buitenen told the BBC.

"The commission is a closed culture and they want to keep it that way, and my objective is to open it up, to create more transparency and to put power where it belongs - and that's in the democratically-elected European Parliament," he says.

The commission says he was suspended for breaking his contract by releasing details of the inquiry.

Martine Reicherts, spokeswoman for the European Union's executive body, said the report should have been kept secret while the case was under investigation.

Angry MEPs

MEPs have strongly criticised the commission's sanctions against Mr van Buitenen.

The Green group said it would ask Finnish EU Budget Commissioner Erkki Liikanen about the reasons for the suspension.

British Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott has demanded Mr Liikanen's resignation.

"[Mr] Liikanen's attempts to reform the commission have badly failed. The only way to highlight this would be for the EU Commissioner responsible to fall on his sword," he said.

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