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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Prodi wins Eurostat reprieve

By Oana Lungescu
BBC European regional correspondent

After yesterday's tense meeting behind closed doors in Strasbourg, European Commission President Romano Prodi has won a reprieve from the European Parliament.

"If I had sacked a commissioner, I would have been a great politician tonight; if I had sacked three, I would have been a hero. But I must judge the facts and I have not built my political career by walking on the corpses of others."

European Parliament Pat Cox, European Commission Secretary-General David O'Sullivan and President Romano Prodi
Prodi (r) has vowed to stamp out corruption
With these words, Mr Prodi dismissed calls for senior scalps over the Eurostat affair.

The European executive is facing its most serious crisis since 1999, when the previous commission was forced by parliament to step down over allegations of nepotism and fraud.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that few want a repeat performance.

"We cannot bring down a commission every time we face elections," one MEP said, in a reference to next June's vote for the European Parliament.

No crisis needed

On Wednesday night, when three different inquiry reports were released, MEPs had been angered by the detailed allegations of slush funds and missing paper trails at Eurostat, and apparent passivity at the commission.

But 24 hours later, tempers had calmed down. Hans-Gert Poettering, the leader of the centre-right European People's Party - the biggest party in the European Parliament - said the main point was not to single out a scapegoat, but to ensure the proper functioning of the commission and administrative reform.

Seeing their worst suspicion about Brussels fat cats confirmed, the voters are likely to make their displeasure known at next years' European elections
He added that an institutional crisis, was not what the EU needed as it prepared for a historic expansion and the inter-governmental conference on the European constitution.

There were fears that a power struggle between institutions would overshadow the launch of the key constitutional talks in Rome next weekend.

Enrique Baron-Crespo, leader of the Socialists - the second largest group in the European Parliament - urged his colleagues not to set up the guillotine outside the gates to chop off the heads of commissioners.

It is no coincidence that Mr Baron-Crespo is a Spanish Socialist, like Pedro Solbes, the European Commissioner for financial affairs.

'Disproportionate'

Mr Solbes, who holds the primary responsibility for Eurostat, has been the main target of the critics.

Pedro Solbes
Solbes has cross-party backing in Spain
But he enjoys the backing of Spain's conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who likes his firm stance in enforcing financial discipline in the euro-zone.

The other two commissioners in the spotlight, German Green Michaele Schreyer (in charge of the budget) and British Socialist Neil Kinnock (in charge of administrative reform) also have the support of their national governments and their parliamentary groups.

As for the leader of the third main group in parliament, Graham Watson of the Liberals, he urged Mr Solbes to prepare his resignation letter.

But he also described the scandal as disproportionate, blaming it on "some people who seek to widen a limited affair for the purpose of carrying home political trophies" - a possible reference to British and Danish eurosceptics.

While criticising what he called the governance gaps at the commission, European Parliament President Pat Cox said it was premature to arrive at a conclusive judgement.

The final reports from the Commission's Internal Audit Service and the independent European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) are expected in late October.

Tug-of-war

It will then be up to the parliament's respected budgetary control committee to deliver a verdict on Eurostat before Christmas.

At the same time, EU leaders are expected to thrash out the final details of the constitution.

In the ongoing constitutional debate, Mr Prodi has spoken for smaller countries and future member states in defending the role of the European Commission in an enlarged EU.

They are concerned that, if the Eurostat affair drags on or if the inquiries find clear culprits at the top, and heads begin to roll, the commission will emerge further weakened.

The European Parliament, which insisted on holding Mr Prodi's hearings behind closed doors, could also lose out, leaving EU governments as the main winners in the institutional tug-of-war.

But that will mean little to the average voters. Seeing their worst suspicion about Brussels fat cats confirmed, they are likely to make their displeasure known at next years' European elections and referendums on the constitution.

Romano Prodi has staked his political future on stamping out corruption at the European Commission. In his native Italy, where he may return to lead the Left in the next general elections, the former prime minister is one of the few politicians with a reputation for "clean hands".

Italy's current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, tried and has so far failed to implicate Mr Prodi in corruption allegations, but he must have relished the sight of his political rival being grilled in the European Parliament yesterday.


SEE ALSO:
Eurostat: Time for resignations?
25 Sep 03  |  Have Your Say
Q and A: Eurostat scandal
25 Sep 03  |  Europe
Cresson faces fraud inquiry
15 Feb 00  |  Europe
Prodi unveils EU reforms
27 Jan 00  |  Europe


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