EU AGENDA Beware the Ides of March

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Beware the Ides of March

Martin Holland comments on the recent resignation of the whole European Commission.

On 15 March 1999 the unprecedented resignation of all 20 members of the European Commission took place. The report of the Group of Independent Experts into `fraud, mismanagement or nepotism' found six cases of a comparatively minor nature (four of which pre-dated the appointment of the 1995 Commission headed by President Jacques Santer) and one of `favouritism'. Despite the finding that none of the Commissioners were `directly or personally involved in fraudulent activities', the repercussions of the report have far outweighed the seriousness of these offences.

One of the first decisions of the Berlin Heads of Government Summit of 24 March was the unanimous agreement to nominate Romano Prodi (the former Italian Prime Minister 199698) as the new Commission President. This nomination is, however, subject to the approval of the European Parliament and will not be determined until May at the earliest. The Berlin meeting postponed the related decision concerning the fate of the remaining Commissioners and on the continued tenure of the caretaker administration. It is widely expected that a new Commission will not be in place before the June European Parliament elections, and possibly as late as the northern hemisphere autumn.

It is easily forgotten that in 1995 the choice of Jacques Santer as European Commission President was largely due to the insistence of then British Prime Minister John Major. Somewhat ironically, the British believed that Santer was `a pair of safe hands' whose appeal lay in his low-key manner and that he lacked the political stature, authority and openly federal agenda of his predecessor, Jacques Delors. The appointment was symbolic of a familiar power struggle within the EU institutions. The objective was to rein in the power of the Commission (which had grown dramatically under Delors's decade of leadership); the recent resignation of the Commissioners has inadvertently helped to achieve this. Indeed, it was because the political authority and administrative credibility of the Commission had been so fundamentally eroded that the Berlin summit chose Prodi in an attempt to restore strong political leadership within the Commission.

What are the wider implications of this unprecedented resignation? First, the resignations illustrated that the procedures first set up in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which still largely govern the European Union, require urgent reform. There are no provisions for expressing either a vote of confidence in the Commission or, conversely, of sanctioning individual Commissioners. The only option available (other than resignation) is for the European Parliament to sack the Commission en bloc -- something that has been threatened but never enacted. This shield of collective responsibility may well be modified by the introduction of individual responsibility along the lines of Westminster-style conventions.

Second, the limited democratic accountability of the Commissioners has been exposed. The 20 Commissioners are selected by the individual 15 member states (two each for the five largest states, one each for the rest) for five-year terms. While technically appointed by consensus by the Council of Ministers and approved by the Parliament, in reality they have in the past been chosen by the member states. They are appointed not elected, and are typically former senior national politicians. For example, in the 1995 Commission Santer and Edith Cresson were former Prime Ministers (of Luxembourg and France respectively), Sir Leon Brittan a former member of Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet, and Hans van den Broek a former Dutch Foreign Minister. This non-elected Commission is responsible for proposing and implementing EU policy and has often been described as part of the European Union's democratic deficit. Until the Commission's surprise resignation, many questioned whether they were accountable at all. …