The Fall of the Santer Commission (part 3)

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What was the result?

What was the impact of the Commission’s fall? It had a considerable effect on Parliament’s view of itself, with the event acquiring an almost legendary status. Most members saw it as marking a major shift in relations between the Commission and the Parliament, between an executive and a parliament. Pat Cox describes it in his interview as a “high act of parliamentarism.”

Interview with Cox, Patrick | HAEU Reference Code: INT818

Others placed the events of 1999 in a broader historical context. Nicole Fontaine, who became President of the Parliament after the 1999 European elections, considered the forced resignation of the Commission as part of the “maturing” of the Parliament and as the third major development in the institution’s history after direct elections in 1979 and the acquisition of significant legislative powers in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

Interview with Fontaine, Nicole | HAEU Reference Code: INT1027

Fontaine also points to the dramatic effect of the resignation on the Commission, which was traumatized by what had occurred. The issue of the impact on the Commission rather than Parliament was one that also preoccupied John Cushnahan, an Irish Fine Gael MEP in the EPP (European People’s Party). In what was no doubt a minority view, he considered it an act of political irresponsibility, driven by the prospect of elections some months later, and felt that it had undermined the Commission and its role in the EU. He saw the Commission as “irretrievably damaged” and the primacy of the Council reaffirmed.

Interview with Cushnahan, John | HAEU Reference Code: INT820

Certainly, if Parliament had expected to be rewarded at the ballot box for its role in bringing down the Commission, it was to be disappointed. Turnout at the 1999 European elections three months later fell by over 7% to end up below 50% for the first time in five European elections. Moreover, the impact on the Commission was palpable. As Fontaine pointed out, the institution suddenly saw “snipers at every window.”

As Sylvain Bisarre, the Director responsible for Staff at the Commission, pointed out, the resignation had been a total surprise: “les fonctionnaires ne s’attendaient pas du tout à ce qu’un collège quel qu’il soit, puisse être mis en cause à ce point en tant que collège, globalement, par le Parlement européen, et au point de provoquer sa démission” (Transcript of Bisarre interview, p.25 | HAEU Reference Code: INT961).

It was a very depressing time for Commission staff who felt that their raison d’être was being called into question, but the sense of shock did not prevent the whole institution from adapting to take account of the new situation.

Relations with the Parliament assumed greater prominence, with the appointment of a Vice-President with responsibility for dealing with the institution. Much greater attention started to be paid to the answers prepared for written and oral questions and to ensuring a presence of Commissioners at committee meetings and in plenary (Transcript of Bisarre interview, p.29)

As Una O’Dwyer explains, this change in attitude was facilitated by the growing importance of codecision in the legislative arena. The Commission started to see the Parliament as a partner on an equal footing with the Council, a profound change which has been reinforced by subsequent Treaty amendments:

Interview with Interview with O’Dwyer, Una | HAEU Reference Code: INT1094

Behavioural change was accompanied by specific policy responses to the issues that had arisen during extended debate about the 1996 budgetary discharge and because of the work of the Committee of Independent Experts. Two specific examples of improved accountability are worthy of note.

First, in May 1999 an interinstitutional agreement was reached between Parliament, Council and Commission on the establishment of OLAF, the anti-fraud office. The office was not given the degree of independence that Parliament had wished but Parliament acquired a role in appointing its Director as well as the Surveillance Committee, overseeing OLAF’s operations.

Second, in direct discussions with Parliament, the Commission agreed to new rules on the disclosure of documents relating to budgetary control, obliging it to respond positively to Parliament requests for information on specific fraud cases. Parliament established arrangements for examining such documents under secure conditions and won for its President the right to arbitrate in case of dispute.

On a broader front, the fall of the Santer Commission led to a major reform of the Financial Regulation establishing the rules for EU expenditure and of the Statute of EU civil servants, with the new texts coming into effect in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Parliament only had a consultative role in the process but given what had happened, it went to considerable lengths, including withholding its opinion, to ensure its priorities were taken into account.

Some felt that the changes brought in weakened the Commission in precisely the way that Cushnahan argued. Bisarre felt that the introduction of forced mobility made Commission staff less able to fight their corner in the Council:

Personnellement, avec l’expérience, je considère qu’il y a aussi, dans cette réforme, une volonté d’abaissement des institutions communautaires. Quoi qu’on pense du statut ou du niveau de rémunération des fonctionnaires européens, ils ont permis de recruter des candidats de très bon niveau, d’excellents juristes, d’excellents économistes. Je me souviens qu’au début de ma carrière un directeur général qui défendait son dossier au Coreper connaissait sa matière de façon approfondie et constituait un interlocuteur redoutable pour les ambassadeurs. Cela mettait la Commission en position de force et ne plaisait pas forcément à tous les États membres. Aujourd’hui, le changement de statut, complété par une obligation de mobilité fréquente pour les directeurs généraux, a plutôt tendance à affaiblir la Commission face à ses interlocuteurs du Conseil. Au total, même si des réformes étaient indiscutablement nécessaires dans la gestion interne de la Commission, j’estime que la Commission a surréagi à cette « crise Santer », et a fait trop de concessions au Parlement européen. Politiquement, cette réforme reflétait des arrière-pensées autres que l’amélioration de la gestion interne, et n’était pas « innocente » (Transcript of Sylvain Bisarre, page 28).

Parliament was faced with the unexpected consequence of a potential weakening of the Commission not just because of mobility, but also because of the tightening of the rules on expenditure. The reforms made it much more complicated to commit and spend money. Patricia Bugnot, a senior Commission official at the time, comments on the “terrible bureaucratization of procedures”:

’une bureaucratie effrayante. Maintenant, on contrôle tout : il y a toujours quelqu’un d’autre qui contrôle, on a multiplié les strates de contrôle avec à mon sens le risque d’une déresponsabilisation. Cela alourdit terriblement le processus. S’agissant de la gestion financière, certains collègues disaient même préférer renoncer à certains projets, plutôt que de faire face aux procédures lourdes et longues qu’ils allaient impliquer.

Extract of interview with Patricia Bugnot, pp.24-5 | HAEU Reference Code: INT970

The reforms introduced after 1999 were therefore not automatically to the benefit of Parliament as an institution but were part of the price that was paid for the weaknesses in procedures that had existed previously.

A further consequence of the fall of the Commission arose from the inability of Jacques Santer to sack Edith Cresson. This weakness of the Commission President assumed particular importance after the 1999 European elections. For the first time since direct elections had been introduced, the EPP became the largest group in the Parliament and it was decidedly unhappy about the decision of the European Council to nominate a centre-left politician, Romano Prodi, as President of the Commission. The group made it clear that its support for him and his Commission for the full term from 2000 to 2005 was dependent on him making a series of commitments, particularly concerning his relations with individual Commissioners.

This pressure from Parliament provoked a strong debate inside the Commission. David O’Sullivan, who became Head of the Private Office of President Prodi, was much involved in persuading the President to accede to the pressure from the EPP. As he indicates, there was resistance, notably from Delors, who reiterated the positions he had taken at the time that hearings were instituted, arguing that the Commission was a collective body and not one composed of individuals who could be held to account one by one.

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

Subsequently Prodi was ready to make the following statement in front of the Parliament before he and his Commission won a vote of approval at the September 1999 plenary:

“Where the parliament expresses a lack of confidence in a member of the commission – subject to the substantive and representative nature of the political support for such a view – I as president of the commission will examine seriously whether I should request that member to resign.,”

Hans Gert Pöttering, leader of the EPP group at that time, saw the acceptance by Prodi of this change as a “great institutional step”:

Interview with Pöttering, Hans-Gert | HAEU Reference Code: INT847

For the Parliament this represented a major reinforcement of the level of accountability of Commissioners, which meant that there could not be a repeat of what had happened with Edith Cresson.

It also established a trajectory which gave greater importance to the hearings: they became an opportunity for examining the credentials of prospective Commissioners more carefully from a political perspective. The option of blocking the appointment of individuals, which Delors had always been concerned about, suddenly looked a much more realistic option.

Paolo Ponzano, who worked in the Secretariat General of the Commission, links the events of 1999 with the situation in 2004 when the Barroso Commission could only be confirmed in office after the replacement of the Italian and Latvian nominees and the reshuffling of the portfolio of the Hungarian Commissioner designate.

Interview with Ponzano, Paolo | HAEU Oral History Collection

The desire of the Parliament to exercise greater control over the executive was not exhausted by the events of 1999 and their aftermath. It can be seen since 2014 in Parliament’s insistence that the European Council not propose a candidate for Commission President who had not been a candidate before the European elections and who could not persuade a majority of MEPs to back her/him.

The different outcomes of this Spitzenkandidaten system in 2014 and 2019 do not alter the fact that the debate about executive accountability is also a debate about the kind of representative democracy that should exist at EU level. Should it be based on a separation of powers or are we trying to create a parliamentary government (De Feo, A. and Shackleton, M. (2019) pp.130-1)? Klaus Welle suggests that many made the mistake in 2019 of assuming we have a parliamentary government, such as the German one, but in his view the Parliament is obliged to recognize that any President of the Commission has to win the support of a majority of the European Council as well as of the Parliament.

Interview with Welle, Klaus | HAEU Oral History Collection

Here is not the place to seek a conclusion to this argument but rather to acknowledge that the events of 1999 were an important staging post in Parliament’s struggle to establish a system of executive accountability over the Commission, a struggle that continues today.

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