The Fall of the Santer Commission (part 2)

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What happened in 1999 and why?

How was the “sword of public accountability” described at the end of the previous post actually wielded? Pat Cox describes the process by which the report of a Committee of Independent experts, set up to examine the irregularities identified by the Parliament, was examined by him and his staff. Within 15 minutes they discovered the phrase that mattered.

Interview with Cox, Patrick | HAEU Reference Code: INT818

The phrase should be seen in the context of the complete paragraph, close to the end of the report, which underlines the concept of responsibility as “the ultimate manifestation of democracy.” It presented a picture of collective failure rather than pointing the finger at individual Commissioners:

The responsibility of individual Commissioners, or of the Commission as a body, cannot be a vague idea, a concept which in practice proves unrealistic. It must go hand in hand with an ongoing process designed to increase awareness of that responsibility. Each individual must feel accountable for the measures he or she manages. The studies carried out by the Committee have too often revealed a growing reluctance among the members of the hierarchy to acknowledge their responsibility. It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility. However, that sense of responsibility is essential. It must be demonstrated, first and foremost, by the Commissioners individually and the Commission as a body. The temptation to deprive the concept of responsibility of all substance is a dangerous one. That concept is the ultimate manifestation of democracy (Committee of Independent Experts, 1999, para. 9.4.25).

Within a matter of hours of the document becoming public on 15 March 1999 Santer gave a press conference and announced the resignation of the whole College of Commissioners.

In retrospect, it is more than a little surprising to observe that the Commission fell not because of a resolution or vote of the Parliament but rather because of the work of five outsiders who had not been involved in the arguments that had raged in the Parliament for many months. They were contacted out of the blue in January 1999 and invited to produce a report within less than two months. What led to the committee playing such a pivotal role?

A primary reason was the political polarisation that had developed over the previous months. Parliament was profoundly divided about how to deal with the ongoing argument about whether to grant, refuse or further defer discharge to the Commission for the 1996 budget and what the consequences

of failing to grant discharge would be. This division was exacerbated by the ambiguity in the Rules of Procedure whereby a vote against granting discharge did not constitute a vote to refuse it, the precise situation that arose in December 1998.

The PES (Party of European Socialists), the largest group in the Parliament, saw that most of the Commissioners under attack for financial irregularities were Socialists, in particular Edith Cresson and Manuel Marin. Most of the group, and in particular, its leader, the British Labour MEP, Pauline Green, were determined not to see a refusal of discharge passed on the grounds that Socialist Commissioners had been responsible for failures of financial management. Should discharge not be granted, Green won support from amongst those Commissioners and within her group for an unusual strategy, arguing for a censure motion but one that the group would vote against (Priestley, 2008, pp. 163 ff.).

Interview with Green, Pauline | HAEU Reference Code: INT868

On the other hand, the EPP (European People s Party), the second largest group, saw no reason to link the vote on discharge with a censure motion. It was ready to point the finger directly at the Socialist Commissioners concerned. The German delegation in the group played a particularly important role. They were not inclined to defend the Commission as they were not represented in it, with both German Commissioners coming from government parties, breaking a tradition of many years which had seen the two posts divided between government and opposition. Santer was clear as to the significance of their opposition: “S’il y avait eu un commissaire CDU, cela aurait été arrangé tout de suite mais il n’y en avait pas” (page 30 of the transcript of his interview).

From a technical, administrative perspective, Carlo Trojan, the Commission Secretary General, considered that the EPP attacks on the Commission’s financial probity were not justified: it was a case of irregularities, not corruption. He identified the main problem as being the lack of permanent officials and the need to use external staff, known as “sous marins” or “submarines”, to do the Commission’s work within outside bodies called TAOs (Technical Assistance Offices).

Interview with Trojan, Carlo | HAEU Reference Code: INT1142

As this line of argument failed to convince the Parliament, the Commission decided at the December 1998 plenary to adopt a more aggressive stance and effectively to follow the line espoused by Pauline Green, arguing that if the vote on discharge went against it, it would ask for a vote of confidence. This was seen by many as an interference in the affairs of the Parliament and contributed to the defeat of the proposal to grant discharge, though without discharge being refused. Green’s immediate response was to introduce a censure motion but one that could only be voted on at the next part-session in January. This left time for all those involved to consider what to do next.

The idea which gained traction over Christmas was that of establishing some kind of review body under the auspices of Parliament and the Commission. In the Commission, Neil Kinnock, the British Labour Commissioner, came up with the idea of setting up a joint committee composed of representatives from the Parliament and the Commission. He discussed the idea with Santer and argued that if he put it forward, he would be able to influence how it was implemented.

Interview with Kinnock, Neil | HAEU Reference Code: INT1057

Santer did propose some kind of joint committee in the January plenary – something he declares in his interview to have been a strategic error (“faute stratégique”). The Parliament voted in favour of the idea and decided not to have a censure vote. However, the Commission failed thereafter to take an active role in seeing how the idea was implemented. Instead of setting up a joint committee, the Committee of Independent Experts became in effect a body that the Parliament alone guided. It established the membership, the remit, the working conditions, and the composition of the secretariat, without the Commission playing any serious part in these decisions. The extent of the Commission involvement was limited to agreeing to share the expenses of the work of the committee!

What would the committee do? The central dilemma it faced was whether to treat the Commission as a collective body where all were responsible for mistakes or whether to draw particular attention to one or more of the Commissioners. The main character at the heart of this dilemma was Edith Cresson, the Socialist Commissioner, and former French Prime Minister. As Erkki Liikanen, the Finnish Commissioner, put it in his interview:

The real problem was with Édith Cresson. She came to Brussels after having served as Prime Minister. Édith Cresson had been working all her life with the same chef de cabinet. But she came to Brussels; she couldn’t nominate him because he was too old. We had this strict law on the maximum age. So, they had to find an arrangement. So, he was hired on a temporary contract and that became the big issue. Of course, it was not a proper arrangement, she is responsible for her mistake.

(Transcript of Liikanen interview, p.12 | HAEU Reference Code: INT1072)

There were those in the Commission who felt that Cresson should have resigned as a way of resolving the crisis. This was the opinion of David O’Sullivan:

Interview with O’Sullivan, David | HAEU Reference Code: INT1095

However, Cresson never showed any willingness to resign and Santer made it clear that he felt he had no means of making her do so, even though many in the Commission and the Parliament urged him to do so:

Interview with Santer, Jacques | HAEU Reference Code: INT1123

In fact, as we have seen, the committee decided not to blame individual Commissioners but rather to stress the failure of the whole Commission to take responsibility. Many saw this as a French manoeuvre orchestrated by Pierre Lelong, the French member of the committee, with instructions from Paris to ensure that Cresson was not singled out for criticism. The Parliament’s Secretary General claims that it was Lelong who “jotted down a few words on a piece of scrap paper and flung it across the table, asking Ahlenius (the Swedish member of the committee) whether this would suffice” (to satisfy her desire to point to the political responsibility of the Commission) (Priestley, 2008, p.194). It was late at night and the tired members of the committee agreed to incorporate those few words into the final text.

Perhaps the committee might have wanted to revise the fatal phrase had they returned to it in the morning; perhaps without it the Commission might have survived, particularly as the criticisms in the report were measured in tone and took account of extenuating circumstances. Jim Cloos, the Head of the Private Office of Santer, for example, considered that it was enormously unjust that a single sentence should bring down the Commission and that if MEPs had taken the time to read the whole report, they would not have acted as they did: “Relisez le rapport et dites-moi sur quelle base on pouvait faire démissionner la Commission”. As it was, MEPs and the media immediately latched onto this one sentence and Cloos understood what that meant: “c’est le genre de phrase qui tue. En lisant cela, nous savions qu’on ne pourrait rien faire et que c’était fini. Telle est la réalité, mais bon c’est le passé” (Transcript of Cloos interview, p.39 | HAEU Reference Code: INT986).

It was the final act in a drama which saw the Parliament achieve an outcome that corresponded to the desire of most of its members to reinforce executive accountability but without the institution having to take any vote or pass any resolution. Overall, it is hard to disagree with Priestley’s judgement that “however tortuous the process…. Parliament eventually found the means to impose accountability on the Commission, which had yet to come to terms with the significance of its relations with a body which derived its higher legitimacy from direct universal suffrage” (Priestley, 2008, p.201).

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