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14 January 1999: Crisis in the EU

European Parliament, Strasbourg

In 1999, the European Union faced the biggest institutional crisis of its history, and one in which the European Parliament played a key role.

The saga began in December 1998, when the European Parliament refused to give discharge to the 1996 EU budget; in other words, MEPs believed that the European Commission had showed financial incompetence in the way in which the budget had been spent.

Following this, Pauline Green, the British leader of the Socialist Group, tabled a "motion of censure" in the Commission - a kind of motion of no confidence.

Under Article 201 of the Treaty of Rome, if the motion was passed, the Commission, led by Jacques Santer, would have had to resign en masse, rather than just individual commissioners.

But Parliament was thrown into confusion on 14 January 1999, when Ms Green withdrew the censure motion.

Instead she voted on a resolution that called for better financial management of the Commission. The resolution also called for a committee of experts to carry out a review into the way in which the Commission conducted its work.

This however led to the downfall of the Commission. When the committee's damning report was published later that year it revealed serious irregularities, nepotism - particularly surrounding the Education Commissioner and former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson - and claims that allegations of fraud had not been properly investigated.

Immediately after the report was published, Commission President Jacques Santer announced that he and the rest of his commissioners would tender their resignation immediately.

As for Pauline Green, she was criticised for her handling of the affair and withdrew her bid to remain head of the Socialist group following the 1999 European Parliamentary elections.

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