It's Time to Let in Some Light : After the Mass Resignation of Santer and Company, the European Commission Is Rushing to Change Its Dark Old Ways, and to Embrace New Faces

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek International, November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

It's Time to Let in Some Light : After the Mass Resignation of Santer and Company, the European Commission Is Rushing to Change Its Dark Old Ways, and to Embrace New Faces


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek International


Neil Kinnock, the former leader of Britain's Labour Party, was mulling over some of the accusations leveled against him since he was named vice president of the European Commission last summer. "I'm going 'to liquidate people.' I'm going to--what else have they said?--Oh, I'm 'conducting a blitzkrieg.' I'm a mixture of Stalin, Hitler and Thatcher with a little bit of Blair." That's pretty serious name-calling from a bunch of gray-suited bureaucrats. But that's just a sample of the acrimony in Brussels these days as the European Commission is reorganized, the European Union's whole way of doing business is rethought and a lot of time-servers are starting to think that their time is running out.

Nobody ever claimed that the job would be easy. Reform has been tried, and failed, more times than any commissioner remembers. Yet despite bitter complaints by a lot of vested interests, some major changes now seem inevitable. Suddenly, at least at the top, "clarity," "simplicity" and "transparency" are the new buzzwords of Brussels. And not a moment too soon, it would seem, since scandals forced the mass resignation of President Jacques Santer and his entire European Commission last March. "Part of our mandate for modernization and reform comes from weaknesses in the past," says Kinnock. "Part of it comes from the urgent demands of the immediate future." What face will Europe show to the world in the next century? And to its own people? That's what's at stake, and that's why passions are running high.

The European Commission is the central administrative body of the European Union, which used to be an international organization but today looks like--something else. Founded with six members in 1957, the Union now has 15--and will quickly grow to perhaps 25. Almost certainly, other European countries will soon join the 11 that now form the currency union. But there's no equivalent of George Washington, "the father of his country," to grace the 1 Euro bill, and e pluribus unum, the Latin inscription on the American dollar, still has a vaguely subversive ring on the eastern edge of the Atlantic. More than 40 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, it's no easier than it ever was to say precisely what the Union is, or stands for.

That makes the everyday tasks of those who work for the EU difficult to define. It isn't just the Commission--the permanent bureaucracy--that's at fault. The Council of Ministers, in its spanking new building, shares an institutional traditions that is more diplomatic than democratic. Leaders of the EU's member states could have insisted long ago on changes in the ways by which the Union's institutions do business; they have signally failed to do so. Throughout Brussels, secrecy has long been considered a cardinal virtue. For years, the various "directorates" of the Commission didn't even have names, just Roman numerals for identification.

Then last year a series of ethical and financial scandals erupted. Since the resignation of Santer's team, Romano Prodi, the new president of the Commission, has been scrambling to let in some light, clean up old mistakes and get ready for new members. He plans, in short, to put the house in order before the new rooms are added on. If that doesn't happen, Prodi has warned, "the Union will not be able to afford to deal with enlargement and rethink its institutional system at the same time."

To lay the groundwork for reforms, Prodi asked three senior European statesmen to look at the Commission's problems. Led by former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, they concluded that "most Europeans don't understand the workings of our institutions." The report proposed that an Inter-Governmental Council meet next year to reform the system and revise its treaties.

That plan now seems to be on course. Prodi and Commissioner Michel Barnier, a French Gaullist, issued a memorandum this month laying out priorities. First of all, they'd like to see more decisions made by majority votes. …

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