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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Scandal threatens EU commissioners
An investigation into the European Commission's statistical bureau - Eurostat - could lead to high-level resignations in the next few weeks, reports the BBC's Tim Franks in Brussels.

Dorte Schmidt-Brown is 37 years old and on indefinite sick leave.

She had a nervous breakdown making complaints about life inside Eurostat.

You are treated a little bit like an outcast - it's not popular to complain about things
Dorte Schmidt-Brown
As she explained to the BBC, in her first radio interview, this was something which people were not encouraged to do.

"When you stand out from the horde, if you want to say it like that, you are of course going to run into things that is not very nice.

"And also you are a little bit treated like an outcast. It's not popular to complain about things of course. "

Ms Schmidt-Brown is very reluctant to speak about the affair. The rules say that even after staff have left the commission they are not supposed to talk to the press.

But her European representative, Danish MEP Freddie Blak, is under no such constraints.

"A lot of people say she was paranoid and she was sick and everything," he says.

"But Dorte had rights, there was something bad, and it was a really bad management system, and after the case is coming up we can see there is a lot of irregularity and perhaps also fraud."

'Commissioners to blame'

What Dorte Schmidt-Brown saw three years ago appears to be one small part of it.

They have ignored all the warning signs, and I think that's almost being complicit in a cover up
Chris Heaton Harris
Conservative MEP
The allegations are that Eurostat bosses channelled hundred of thousands of euros into unofficial bank accounts, away from budgetary controls. And also that former colleagues, even family members, set up companies that were then given fat contracts from Eurostat.

Concerns were sounded years ago by internal auditors, but it was only in May of this year that the Eurostat bosses were suspended from duty. Two months later, an urgent task force of inquiry was set up.

The UK Conservative MEP, Chris Heaton Harris, says that European Commissioners are culpable.

"I believe they have either been completely ignorant of the situation, which I think is terrible, which means a complete breakdown of communications within the commission," he says.

"Or they have ignored all the warning signs, and I think that's almost being complicit in a cover up."

Looking tough

Mr Blak says the problem goes further, and that this is about the whole culture of the commission.

Pedro Solbes
Pedro Solbes is the commissioner responsible for Eurostat
"It's people who are working, not for the European taxpayer, but working for themselves," he says.

"People say if you don't say anything about me I will not say anything about you. And if we don't change the system, the commission will kill themselves."

There is anger right across the European Parliament with the behaviour of the commission. Some sceptical observers here in Brussels are saying that MEPs are puffing out their chests because they face elections next year and there is nothing better than stamping your foot and looking tough.

Whatever the motives, the MEPs are scowling at one commissioner in particular.

He is Pedro Solbes, the man with direct responsibility for Eurostat, and more to the point, say some MEPs, the man who is most closely identified with the euro's much vilified stability and growth pact.

Mr Solbes and the rest of the commissioners began their term of office in 1999 after charges of nepotism and financial mismanagement forced the resignation of their predecessors.

When they took charge they each signed a letter addressed to the president of the commission, Romano Prodi, promising that if he asked them to resign, they would.

Sense of responsibility

So if it comes to it, will they?

You can have as good rules as you want, but if nobody is using them then they are worth nothing
Dorte Schmidt-Brown
"There is no shadow of a doubt in my mind, or in anyone else's mind, that if it ever were to come to that, everybody would honour their pledges," says Mr Prodi's spokesman, Reijo Kemppinen.

And that sense of responsibility is something which Dorte Schmidt Brown, the Eurostat employee now on indefinite sick leave, hopes will pervade the whole workings of the commission.

"That's my hope, that I can help the people that run into problems, that they will get an easier situation than the one I have gone through," she says.

"That is my biggest aim in this case because you can have as good rules as you want, [but] if nobody is using them then they are worth nothing."

On 25 September Romano Prodi will face members of the European Parliament to answer questions about the Eurostat affair.

Those MEPs are already warning that it will be a deeply uncomfortable experience.

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27 Jan 00  |  Europe

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