The 1999 resignation of the Santer Commission and its significance for the development of accountability inside the EU

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Holding the executive to account is a central function in any parliamentary democracy.  The European Union is no different.   It has had to find an answer to the question of how the executive should be controlled, particularly with the dramatic increase in the scope of its activities.  As the interviews illustrate, the European Parliament has played a central role in determining the nature of that answer.

Unlike in national systems, the locus of executive power in the EU is less clearly defined.  Much of what governments do at national level is undertaken in the EU by the European Council and the Council of Ministers.  Parliament has minimal control over either of these institutions, though both do now report regularly to it and answer questions.  For some, this is a major flaw: one member described it as a big, gaping hole in EU governance that leads to national electorates failing to understand the three-dimensional character of the Union.  For others, it is rather a question of a division of competences: the job of the European Parliament is to hold the European Commission to account, while national parliaments should keep an eye on their ministers who go to the Council and the head of state or government who attends the European Council.  National parliaments and the European Parliament need to see they have a joint enemy, the European and national administrations, with each needing to concentrate on the one closest to it.

Strength and weaknesses of the Santer Commission

The Santer Commission was the European Commission in office between 23 January 1995 and 15 March 1999. The administration was led by Jacques Santer (former Prime Minister of Luxembourg).

The body had 20 members and oversaw the introduction of the euro. It was cut short when the Commission became the first to resign en masse, owing to allegations of corruption. Some members continued under Manuel Marín until the Prodi Commission was appointed.

In 1994, Jacques Delors was due to step down from a successful tenure as President of the European Commission. However, his federalist style was not to the liking of many national governments. Hence, when Jean-Luc Dehaene (the then Prime Minister of Belgium) was nominated as his successor, he was vetoed by the UK on the grounds he was too federalist. Jacques Santer, then-Prime Minister of Luxembourg, was seen as less federalist, for his presidency had earlier proposed the pillar structure. Hence, he was nominated and approved by the European Council on 15 July 1994.

Being seen as the “second choice” weakened Santer’s position, with the European Parliament approving him only by a narrow majority. He himself admitted that he “was not the first choice – but to become Commission president was not my first choice either.” He did, however, flex his powers over the nominations for the other Commissioners. The President gained this power under the Maastricht Treaty that came into force the previous year. On 18 January 1995, he got his Commission approved by Parliament by 416 votes to 103 (a larger majority than expected) and they were appointed by the council on 23 January.

The position in the EP

Riveting, amazing, a high watermark of parliamentarism – all comments from our interviews on the fall of the Santer Commission in 1999, which reflect a shared sense that the events leading up to the resignation of the Commission were not just exciting to live through but also a significant milestone in the history of the institution, even if the Santer Commission had almost reached the end of its mandate.  However, the interviews reveal rather different perspectives on the meaning of the events.

From one point of view, it was a crisis that arose because of a failure of the Commission to recognise its changing position in the EU.  It showed itself to be arrogant, counting itself to be central to Community life and independent.  It did not recognise that such a position was no longer tenable.  In a democracy no institution can be politically independent: there has to be accountability of the executive.

Pauline green, leader of the Socialist group had to find a balance, here how she comments the event:

(link to SoundCloud)

Last but not least, the Santer Commission could be said to have fallen because of the way in which the issue at stake was framed.  As a former President put it, the issue was not one of accountancy, as revealed in the discharge procedure, but one of public accountability.  Once the dispute was presented in these general terms, it proved impossible for President Santer to defend his position in terms of collective responsibility of the College of Commissioners.  He witnessed the shield of responsibility being transformed into a sword of accountability that was used against him.  In this sense, the events of 1999 were the result of a struggle over the nature of parliamentary democracy at EU level.

(links to SoundCloud)

The Commission

  • Commissioner Liikanen, was Commissioner for Budget, Personnel and administration, which included responsibilities for translation and information technology.
  • Santer
  • Juncker
  • Von der Leyen

Scholars

Giovanni Kessler, the Director-General of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), has faced allegations that he listened in on telephone conversations as part of a previous OLAF investigation. Helen Xanthaki argues that the case should act as motivation for EU authorities to reassess the structure of OLAF and its role in preventing fraud at the European level.

On 2 March, the College of Commissioners decided to lift the immunity of the European Union’s Anti-fraud Office (OLAF) Director General, Giovanni Kessler, in relation to a request by Belgian authorities to investigate his conduct during a previous OLAF investigation.

In the aftermath, most European media sources concentrated their reporting on the series of events that led to this decision. The case relates to an OLAF investigation that led to the forced resignation of the Maltese former Health Commissioner, John Dalli, and centres around the alleged intervention of Kessler in the tapping of a conversation between witnesses in that investigation.

The Belgian authorities’ request to lift Kessler’s immunity in order to investigate and ultimately possibly prosecute Kessler, and the possible illegality of that alleged intervention under Belgian law, received significant coverage, as did the one year lapse between the time that the Belgian request was forwarded to the Commission and the final decision of the Commission to lift Kessler’s immunity, the alleged encouragement of Kessler to resign and take up another permanent post at the Commission, the public resentment of that allegation by the European Parliament and its Budgetary Committee, Kessler’s persistence of innocence, and the final lifting of his immunity by the Commission.

There is no doubt that these events could inform a successful soap opera. The story is intriguing, and quite useful at a time of serious doubts over the EU and its future – and not only in the UK. The question is, useful to whom: Eurosceptics, Europhiles, or indeed both?

Conclusions

The development of oversight of executive action by the Parliament was not restricted to dismissal and appointment.  As many members note in the interviews, there was a transformation in the way in which the other institutions treated the Parliament and responded to its demands over the 40 years of this project.

It would be a mistake to suggest that the change was purely a result of the Santer resignation crisis in 1999 or the introduction of codecision with the Maastricht treaty.  Already in the 1980s before the Single European Act, the Parliament was able to use its more limited powers to good effect.  As one member put it, the Parliament did not have teeth but was able to inflict plenty of damage with its gums. Thus withholding an opinion by a committee could generate a flurry of activity in the Commission, with the relevant Commissioner requesting to meet the committee chair to put his (at that point there had not been a female Commissioner) point of view.

However, there is no question that the very structure of codecision, which brought with it head-to-head negotiations between the Council and the Parliament, had a general impact on Commission behaviour.  Whereas before Commissioners might say that they were too busy to come to committee, by the late 1990s those same Commissioners would be ringing up to ask to come.  The balance of power had shifted; the Commission saw that political support was essential for what they wanted to do.  Whereas before the Parliament needed the Commission on its side to have any chance of influencing the Council, the tables were now turned, with the Commission very conscious of needing to have the Parliament on its side.