Santer spectre haunts Prodi Commission

22.09.03 @ 09:54

  1. By Sharon Spiteri

BRUSSELS - The European Commission will come under heavy scrutiny this week, as reports to be presented will shed light on whether the EU executive failed to take any action over fraud and irregularities in the EU statistical arm Eurostat.

  • The Internal Audit Service report will indicate whether irregularities occured in other EU departments (Photo: European Commission)

It is alleged that senior officials in Eurostat channelled millions of euros into unofficial bank accounts, away from budgetary controls.

The 'zero-tolerance' to fraud and mismanagement’ pledged in 1999, when the current Commission took office in 1999, is being tested as some euro-parliamentarians call for political heads to roll over the affair.

The target appears to be the Spanish Commissioner in charge of Eurostat, Pedro Solbes, although other MEPs are also calling for the resignation of the Commission vice-president Neil Kinnock and the Commission President himself Romano Prodi.

When the Commissioners took office in 1999, they each signed a letter addressed to the president of the Commission, Romano Prodi, promising that if he asked them to resign, they would.

Liberals: One resignation is sufficient

Some euro-parliamentarians are against any mass-resignation, as it occurred in the previous Santer Commission, which was forced to resign in the face of claims of nepotism and mismanagement.

"Our view is that one resignation is sufficient", Liberal group leader in the European parliament Graham Watson said last week.

The Commission secretary general David O'Sullivan also faces being made a scapegoat by MEPs - some of whom want to clean up the EU's finances - and others seeking pre-election publicity, the Irish Independent reported.

Last July he said he "was not aware of the possible involvement of senior officials before 3 April 2003", but also admitted that he kept Commissioners in the dark when Olaf, the EU's anti-fraud office, launches an investigation.

"I think it is now widely recognised that I didn't have information in my possession, until April of this year, that would have materially affected the management of this file," he said, in a rare public comment, quoted by the Irish newspaper.

Crucial reports

Commission President Romano Prodi will face tough questions over the Commission’s handling of the Eurostat affair, when appears before a meeting of the heads of the European Parliament's political groups on Thursday.

The MEPs’ tone will largely depend on the outcome of two crucial reports, which is likely to determine whether they would call for any resignations of the Commissioners responsible.

One report will be from the Task Force set up last July to carry out a full-scale administrative enquiry aimed at assessing the personal responsibilities of other staff involved with any financial irregularities.

The other report from the Internal Audit Service which examined the awarding of contracts and grants by Eurostat in the years 1999 to 2002, might also indicate whether irregularities were present in other departments as well.

MEPs will also be presented with an update of the on-going investigations by the EU anti-fraud office, OLAF.

These reports will be discussed by the Commissioners at their weekly meeting tomorrow, but will only be presented to the leaders of the political groups and MEPs from the Budgetary Control Committee on Wednesday night.

Some MEPs are concerned that the Task Force report might only indicate that the problems dated before 1999. This would allow Commissioners to escape any of the responsibility.

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