The Fall of the Santer Commission (part 1)

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How did we get to March 1999?

The resignation of the Santer Commission was the result of specific circumstances linked to financial management, but it was an event that can be traced back to developments that took place many years before.

The right of censure of the Commission by the Parliament was enshrined in Article 24 of the 1951 ECSC Treaty. Thus, from the very beginning of the history of the EU the Parliament (or the Assembly as it was then known) was accorded a privileged position in enforcing the principle of accountability. Parliament alone was given the right to force the Commission to resign before the end of its term. At no point in the intervening years has this right been extended to other EU institutions, notably the Council or the European Council.

Nine motions of censure were introduced between 1972 and 1999 (Corbett, Jacobs and Neville, 2016, pp.361-4) but none secured a majority. However, the character of the links between the Parliament and the Commission did not remain static: they gradually evolved and tied the two institutions more closely together. The directly elected Parliament began unilaterally in 1981, with the Thorn Commission, to hold a debate and a vote on an incoming Commission as a whole (not the President). Member States recognised and accepted this practice in their Stuttgart “Solemn Declaration” in 1983, in which they also agreed to consult the Parliament’s Bureau on the choice of Commission President.

In 1985, the incoming Delors Commission waited for the EP’s confidence vote before taking the oath of office, an important symbolic gesture recognising the significance of the vote on the college, and implying that had the vote been negative, they would not have proceeded. These changes in “soft law” were then followed up in the Maastricht Treaty which came into force in 1993 and which:

  • changed the Commission’s term of office to 5 years to coincide with the that of the Parliament;
  • formally provided for the Parliament to vote to approve or reject the Commission as a whole; and
  • laid down that the Parliament as a whole had to be consulted on the choice of President.

This last provision effectively became a de facto binding vote once Jacques Santer undertook in 1994 that he would withdraw if the vote in the Parliament on his nomination as Commission President went against him. Together all these changes formalised the tightening of the bonds of accountability between the two institutions.

The character of this accountability was broadened again when the Parliament included in its Rules of Procedure that before voting on the Commission, it would require each prospective Commissioner to appear in a public hearing before the appropriate parliamentary committee. As the then President of the Parliament, Klaus Hänsch, explains in the following extract, this was by no means straightforward. In contrast with the incoming Commission President, Santer, the outgoing President, Jacques Delors, was initially strongly opposed because he felt that such hearings would undermine the collective responsibility of the Commission and could lead to individual votes on Commissioners. Many inside the Parliament wanted precisely to have such votes and the chance to say that a specific Commissioner was not suitable for the job. Hänsch had to steer between these two positions as well as ensuring that governments would not oppose a procedure which was not laid down in the Treaties. He took the initiative of announcing publicly the results of individual hearings and giving the Parliament’s impressions of the candidates, which could be more or less favourable. He also dealt with difficult cases, such as that of Ritt Bjerregard, the prospective Danish Commissioner, who had suggested that the Parliament was not really a proper Parliament. She was fortunate not to have to face a vote!

Interview with Hänsch, Klaus | HAEU Reference Code: INT832

All these changes altered the environment surrounding relations between the Parliament and the Commission. It was no longer the case that the two institutions automatically saw themselves on the same side of arguments in opposition to the Council, a trend that had been exacerbated by the arrival of codecision with its provisions for direct negotiation between the Council and the Parliament, potentially at the expense of the Commission.

Moreover, the arrival of the Santer Commission marked a major change from the previous Delors era. Delors had been a member of the Parliament in the early 1980s and had always been very sensitive to the position of the Parliament. He was careful, for example, to ensure that he presented new proposals to the Parliament before going to the Council or explaining them to the press. He kept close relations with the PES (Party of European Socialists) and the EPP (European People s Party), the two biggest groups in the Parliament, so that he could keep track of changing opinions and keep the Parliament informed of his own intentions.

Jacques Santer’s Presidency of the Commission was quite different. David Harley, later to be Deputy Secretary General of the Parliament, who has also published his diaries of working in the Parliament (Harley, 2021) reminds us that he was not the first choice of the European Council for the job  and faced considerable resistance from inside the Parliament, despite the pleas of the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, in Santer’s favour

Interview with Harley, David | HAEU Oral History Collection

As a result, Santer did not have the same level of political authority as his predecessor. Not enjoying the prestige of Delors, he was much less able to ensure that relations between the two institutions remained on an even keel. He also had in his College Commissioners such as Edith Cresson, former MEP, and French Prime Minister, who took a rather aloof position towards the Parliament. Moreover, in the opinion of Christine Verger, whose career as an official was split between the Commission and the Parliament, those at the centre of the Commission administration, notably the Secretary General, Carlo Trojan, did not have a good understanding of the Parliament and how to deal with it.

Interview with Verger, Christine | HAEU Oral History Collection

Within the Commission there was certainly a keen sense that the Parliament was trying to extend its influence and would be willing to do so without taking undue account of the Commission. When Jim Cloos, Head of the Private Office of Jacques Santer, went to see Pascal Lamy, Head of the Private Office of Jacques Delors, before Santer took office in September 1994, the latter was categorical. “Je suis désolé de te le dire mais la Commission Santer va être à un moment ou un autre démis par le Parlement européen. C’est vu par beaucoup au PE comme un signe d’émancipation indispensable. Ils ont essayé avec Delors mais il était trop fort à la fin” (page 16 of the transcript of the interview with Jim Cloos}.

The situation looked rather different from inside the Parliament. Julian Priestley, Secretary General of the Parliament at the time, subsequently wrote: “it was a fairly widespread view in the Commission’s services that Parliament was a self-regarding creature, with an inflated sense of its own importance. Given the limited qualities of these tribunes of the people, there was, on this view, little point in wasting effort in giving convincing or thorough replies to their questions or their criticisms or in following up their requests” (Priestley, 2008, p.145).

Gil-Robles, President of the Parliament between 1997 and 1999, was also very struck by the arrogant attitude of the Commission and its officials. He saw them as determined to maintain a level of independence, which in his view was incompatible with a parliamentary system, where the executive depended on the support of a parliamentary majority.

Interview with Gil-Robles Gil-Delgado, José María | HAEU Reference Code: INT830

The determination of the Parliament to be seen as part of such a parliamentary system that could not simply be ignored emerged in the argument about granting budgetary discharge to the Commission in accordance with the Treaty (now Article 319 TFEU). Following up the report of the Court of Auditors on the 1996 budget and its refusal to give a “Statement of Assurance” as to the legality and regularity of transactions underlying the payments for that year, the Parliament decided in March 1998 to postpone the granting of discharge. There followed a fraught period during which allegations of mismanagement and fraud proliferated and the mood of the Parliament darkened with many ready to refuse the discharge and to consider the next step of bringing a vote of censure (for a detailed account of this period, see Priestley, 2008, pp.150-75).

Pat COX, who was leader of the Liberal Group and later President of the Parliament, gives an account of how what might be seen as an abstruse debate about the management of money by the services of the Commission came to be seen by him and many others as a much broader argument about the accountability of the Commission. His own thoughts on the issue were crystallised in walks with his dog in Ireland over Christmas at the end of 1998.

Interview with Cox, Patrick | HAEU Reference Code: INT818

Cox notably rejected the defence of the Commission that they should be protected by the “shield of collective responsibility” and instead suggested that shield should be converted into a “sword of public accountability.”  How this process finally led to the resignation of the Commission we will see in the next post.

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