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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Unanswered questions haunt Commission

By Chris Morris
BBC correspondent in Strasbourg

The European Commission would love to draw a line under the Eurostat scandal as quickly as possible.

But the furore provoked by fraud and mismanagement at the EU's statistics agency shows no sign of dying down.

For a Commission which insists that it did nothing wrong, the interim reports into the Eurostat affair paint a mixed picture.

The Eurostat affair could prove damaging for everyone
Most of the criticism is directed at officials outside the Commission itself, and most of the wrong-doing took place before this Commission took office in 1999.

But it is not, by any means, all good news. According to the internal audit service, secret bank accounts in Brussels and Luxembourg remained open until July 2003 in spite of promises that they had been closed down.

In addition, contracts continued to be awarded to companies which were the subject of formal fraud investigations.

Firing line

Now members of the European Parliament, already furious about the secrecy surrounding the investigations, are wondering what else might emerge from the woodwork.

European Commission buildings
The Commission is being accused of inexcusable complacency
Many of them are accusing the Commission of inexcusable complacency, and are calling for heads to roll.

First in the firing line is the Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes, the man in overall charge of Eurostat.

But wait, cries the Commission, we have been trying to clear up the mess we inherited, and progress has been made towards creating a more efficient and transparent system of financial management.

Not enough, reply the critics, and someone should take political responsibility.

So the pressure is on, and for a Commission which came into office promising a whiter than white administration of open government these are difficult times.

Eurostat may not be the biggest fraud ever seen, but it has not been dealt with particularly decisively.

Political ambitions

There is also a broader political context which will keep things bubbling.

EU institutions in general do not score particularly well at the moment when it comes to issues of public trust
With European elections coming up next year many MEPs seeking re-election are keen to make a splash, and prove that they are doing their jobs.

Romano Prodi is also thinking of his political life back in Italy after he leaves the Commission next year.

He is seen as the once and future leader of the Italy's centre-left - Silvio Berlusconi's challenger-in-waiting - and he will want to be seen to do the right thing in a high profile fraud case.

But the Eurostat affair could prove damaging for everyone.

EU institutions in general do not score particularly well at the moment when it comes to issues of public trust.

Voters in Sweden made that clear when they rejected the chance to join the euro in a referendum earlier this month.

Another messy European fraud case - dragging the system through the mud - will make things even worse.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"A handful of MEPs protesting about what they see as a lack of openness"



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