Headless Chicken Could Run and Run; the Collapse of the European Commission Holds New Dangers for Opponents of Closer Integration with Europe, Says Chris Gray

Article excerpt

The European Union has, in one memorable phrase bandied about yesterday, been decapitated.

The resignations of all 20 European Commissions means it now resembles a headless chicken, running about frantically before finally dropping dead.

Some would like to believe the corruption crisis will make the idea of more European integration as dead as the proverbial dodo.

But in fact the momentum from the crisis is running the other way.

Yesterday Conservative leader Mr William Hague was a lone voice when he argued that the correct response was to take powers away from Europe and give them back to national governments.

The rest of the talk was of giving more power to the European Parliament, creating new organisations to act as watchdogs over the Commission and most extraordinary, of increasing the number of bureaucrats working for the Commission itself.

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of this crisis for the European Union and therefore for Britain.

The en masse resignations and disgrace of the Commission has created an unexpected opportunity to reshape EU institutions. 1999 will now go down in history not only as the start of the single currency, but also as the year the EU was forced to reform.

The immediate changes will be minor ones dealing with personalities rather than structures. The first decisions to be made are about who will make up the new Commission.

Mr Jacques Santer and Mrs Edith Cresson will certainly not be in the new body, as the European Parliament is likely to refuse to accept it if they are.

But Mr Neil Kinnock, Sir Leon Brittan and Mr Franz Fischler may well be straight back and possibly get better jobs along the way.

At the same time the so-called "committee of the wise" which produced Monday's damning verdict on the Commission and Commissioners, has still got to publish another report on the officials employed by the Commission.

If the culture it describes in that report is found to be as secretive, nepotistic and incompetent as that described in the first, more heads may roll.

Europe's critics can be forgiven for reacting to the crisis with glee, as it has proved everything they have ever said about Brussels institutions being wasteful, inefficient, self-serving and corrupt.

The response in Brittan may initially be revulsion at the truth of the behaviour of institutions that absorb this country's taxpayers' money like a sponge.

But once the changes of personnel in Brussels are finished, work will start on the more long term reforms needed in the EU.

And these will be designed to make institutions in Brussels more acceptable to the British by weeding out the very things that the Euro-sceptics have been criticising.

The Euro-sceptics have been proved right, but it is set to be a hollow victory because the reforms to come are not going to be those proposed by William Hague.

The European Commission and the European Parliament are not going to suddenly say to Britain: "OK, we've made a mess of it, we'll hand back all your sovereignty we've quietly grabbed over the years".

The Parliament is over-joyed with its muscle-flexing because MEPs think they have finally proved their worth to voters in their native lands.

No longer need they justify their existence by saying they helped pass a regulation that made minor improvements to water quality. …