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A Not So Perfect Union

6 minute read
JOE KIRWIN/Brussels

Flak jackets and helmets have not become part of the dress code at the European Commission. Not yet, anyhow. But if a current wave of vitriol aimed at the unelected 20,000-person-strong bureaucracy by the 15 European Union member states’ politicians and citizens gets any more intense, some kind of protective gear might be necessary. Indeed, no matter which direction you look from the 16-story Commission headquarters in Brussels, the bullets are flying fast and furious. Whether from across the Rhine River in Germany, from over the Seine and Paris, across the English Channel from Britain or even from the distance of Rome and Lisbon, the onslaught has been relentless.

The most recent fusillade came from the U.K., where a former Commission employee went public with a series of allegations about accounting mismanagement and a “cover-up” to hide the problems. Marta Andreasen, 48, a professional accountant hired in January to modernize controls over the j98 billion E.U. budget, insisted she was forced to sign off on expenditures that could not be confirmed. “Unlike the issues surrounding Enron and WorldCom, where you can at least trace transactions and accounts, you cannot do so within the E.U. accounts as there is no system in place for tracing adjustments and changes to figures presented,” Andreasen said at a press conference hosted by Britain’s Conservative Party. “Fraud can therefore lie hidden within the system, undetected and untraced.” With memories still fresh of the 1999 collapse of the previous European Commission under allegations of fraud and incompetence — few were ever proved — Andreasen’s accusation whipped up a furor in British politics, especially among Euro-skeptic Tories.

If that controversy were not enough, Britain’s Minister for International Development Clare Short last week bluntly described the E.U.’s development programs in Africa and other poor countries as “an outrage and a disgrace.” She criticized the Commission for spending too much money on places such as the Balkans and North Africa and not enough in the more desperate countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The Commission says the money is going where member states want it to go.

But the accounting controversy and Short’s charges are mere cavils compared to the sustained attack the Commission has come under in Germany in recent months. Chancellor Gerhard Schrder and challenger Edmond Stoiber, locked in a close election campaign, have both found the Commission an easy target. Schrder has accused it of trying to undermine Germany’s industrial competitiveness through various legislative initiatives and antitrust rulings. Stoiber has been no more forgiving, claiming the Commission continues to encroach on the competence of the German regions, the Lnder, to run their own affairs.

In France, the Commission is in the cross hairs because of a recent proposal to reduce Common Agriculture Policy subsidies, the biggest beneficiaries of which are France’s notoriously volatile farmers. The government of President Jacques Chirac, who already blocked cap reform in 1999, has made it clear that the French will do so again. Nine other member states have aligned themselves with France. Meanwhile, four other members have said the cap reforms do not go far enough, leaving the Commission caught in the middle.

In Italy, the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is in a running feud with the Commission over how to interpret rules requiring budgetary discipline for countries in the euro zone. Those rules, outlined in the E.U.’s Stability and Growth Pact, are proving to be a major obstacle for the Italian government as it tries to implement campaign pledges for income and corporate tax relief.

Then there is Portugal. The center-right government of Prime Minister José Manuel Durào Barroso, which took office in March, said a new audit determined that instead of a 2001 budget deficit equivalent to 2.6% of gdp, the shortfall came in at a whopping 4.1%. Stability and Growth Pact rules hold that any euro-zone country with a deficit above 3% of gdp could face big financial penalties. Obviously, the idea that the E.U.’s poorest country could be fined — on top of huge spending cutbacks the government must make — has not gone down well among Portugal’s citizens. Charged by member states with enforcing the Stability and Growth Pact guidelines, the Commission bears the brunt of Portuguese discontent.

While criticism of the Commission seems particularly intense, longtime observers note that Brussels bashing is a staple of European politics. “Enforcing the rules of the single market will always pit the Commission against vested interests,” says Stanley Crossick, director of Brussels’ European Policy Centre. “So it will always be a whipping post.” Though the Commission has been something of an élitist institution short on modern management expertise, it does serve a vital role in enforcing European Union rules and it protects the interests of the smaller member states, Crossick says. “So the current round of criticism, especially the stereotypical allegations in the press of fraud and corruption, few of which have ever been substantiated, do seriously undermine the Commission and the work of the European Union.”

European Commission Vice President Neil Kinnock has proposed reforms that would give Commission managers more independence in running their departments and base staff promotions more on merit than is now the case. Most of the Commission’s labor unions at first decried the reforms, but lately their opposition has waned and threatened strikes have been avoided. The chorus of complaints against the Commission also comes at a time when its future is under scrutiny in the new Convention for the Future of Europe as the E.U. prepares to take in as many as 10 new members in 2004. A major topic of discussion is whether or not the Commission’s President and possibly its other members should be elected. Supporters of the move argue that it would do much to overcome the European Union’s current “democracy deficit,” the perception that the E.U. is insufficiently accountable to the public. Yet others, including the Commission’s current President Romano Prodi, fear it would be impossible for any candidate to run an effective E.U.-wide campaign. “Elections for a President would definitely increase the legitimacy of the Commission,” says Crossick. “National governments are attacked all the time for mismanagement, and people accept it. But Brussels is seen as a foreign land. It is therefore an inviting target. That would change if there were elections.” Well, more democracy might dampen some of the criticism, but as long as the Commission continues to make decisions that affect the lives of millions, Brussels will remain the place Europeans love to hate.

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