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Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 12:58 GMT

UK Politics

Crisis could prove positive

Time for musical chairs at the European Commission

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The European Commission has been teetering on the brink of crisis for years.

The 20-strong team of bureaucrats has faced persistent attack from its own parliament over fraud and mismanagement dating back to the reign of Jacques Delors.

EU in crisis
Apart from the allegations surrounding individual commissioners, there is the annual row over the massive scale of fraud in the common agricultural policy and other subsidies, which, despite all the promises, has never been successfully tackled.

But the collapse of the entire commission could not have come at a worse time for Europe

It has pitched the European Union and its governments into uncharted territory and no-one seems sure about exactly where to go from here.

The only thing that is certain is that the shock move has left a gaping hole at the centre of Europe - and the fallout could be dramatic.

The effect on the recently-launched euro was instant. It was already suffering after the briefest of honeymoons and was hit further by the announcement.

Euro club

The crisis has delighted the Euro-sceptics in Britain and if the currency continues to fall it will strengthen their hand, while undermining Tony Blair's plans to join the euro club immediately after the next election.

Meanwhile Germany, which currently holds the six-month presidency of the EU, has its own economic problems with a widening deficit and rising unemployment.

The recent resignation of controversial finance minister "Red" Oskar Lafontaine may have helped ease the political strain, but the German government's grip on events seems decidedly less firm that under previous Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Next weekend, Berlin hosts a vital EU summit which was supposed to take key decisions on the so-called Agenda 2000 issues - including institutional reform and the union's budget - which Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had pledged to resolve by the end of the presidency in the summer.

Those debates will now be put on the back burner as the heads of government look to replace Commission President Jacques Santer sooner rather than later. As a result the entire EU timetable could be knocked back significantly.

The crisis also comes at the height of the banana row between the EU and the United States, which needs the full attention of the commission if it is not to escalate into a wider trade war.

Damage credibility

What all European leaders appear to agree on is that the current limbo must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely.

The existing commission will continue to operate normally until a new one is appointed, but the uncertainty could prove highly-damaging to the EU's credibility.

As a result, many see the crisis as a golden opportunity to finally get to grips with the problems besetting the commission and the European Parliament which, for the first time in its history, has flexed its muscles.

[ image: The euro stork took a nosedive]
The euro stork took a nosedive
All are agreed that there needs to be institutional reform of the EU and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in the forefront of the demands for those changes to be "root and branch".

Speaking in the aftermath of the resignations, he said Britain had been arguing for reform for months and Europe would now be ready to listen to the message.

He insisted there was no other option for the commissioners than mass resignation.

"The decision of the European Commission was the only possible decision they could take.

"We have got to use this event as an opportunity to drive through root and branch reform in Europe.

"This is what we have been saying for months and I now think the whole of Europe is ready for this message," he said.

Overdue reform

There seems little doubt that the result will see the commission's role redefined with greater openness and accountability top of the list of demands. The parliament is likely to be given even greater power.

But a strong new commission president will be required to push through that agenda and the long-overdue reforms.

Vice-president Sir Leon Brittan is, in many ways, the ideal candidate. He has immense experience in Brussels and commands widespread respect.

Unfortunately he is a Brit, and from the wrong political party, so his chances of taking over from Mr Santer must be slim.

Tony Blair, who is highly-regarded amongst his socialist allies in Europe, is also in a strong position to influence events but his role is weakened because Britain is not part of the euro club.

What is certain is that the heads of government will want to move swiftly to fill the vacuum and get a new, radically reformed EU back on track.

If it has taken the present crisis to spark that move, many will look back on it as a positive development.

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