Blowing Away the Stink of Corruption

30 September 2003

Blowing Away the Stink of Corruption

Once again officials of the European Union have been caught with their hands in the taxpayers’ purse. A long-term solution would involve the thorough restructuring of the institutions. In the short-term, we need a Parliamentary Enquiry with powers to subpoena witnesses, argues Dutch Euro-MP Erik Meijer.

A leak last May unexpectedly brought to light the fact that Eurostat had concealed spending from the European Commission, hiding moneys in secret bank accounts. Involved was a total of € 980, 000. It also appears that Eurostat had placed orders with offices established by former employees, sometimes paying artificially inflated sums.

The European Commission would have us believe that there’s nothing much here to worry about. That the member states expect more and more from the EU, but are unwilling to pay enough to meet the extra costs this entails. That Eurostat is burdened with an enormous and growing workload, unmatched by additional staff, and is therefore forced to contract work out.

After the fall of the foregoing Santer Commission, the rules governing such tendering were altered. According to the Commission, outsourcing procedures employed by Eurostat had gradually led to problems which, however, could not arise under the present rules.

The Commissioners also insist that they have done everything they could in order to bring the truth to light and to stop irregularities from recurring. The officials responsible have been removed or suspended. Immediately the problems were uncovered the Commission had had the affair thoroughly investigated. By way of embroidering this tale, however, a number of the European Parliament’s political groups are demanding a peace offering: Pedro Solbes, the Commissioner whose responsibilities include Eurostat, must go. This sacrifice will ensure that harmony reigns anew between Parliament and Commission.

From Commission documents it appears that the fraud going on at Eurostat had been known about for some time. Over a number of years, Commission officials have sounded the alarm bell over irregularities. The response, however, has repeatedly been to state that nothing was wrong, while the officials involved suffered as a consequence harassment from their superiors. The irregularities at Eurostat turn out to be much more widespread than the Commission admits. Years ago Commission officials had already brought the institution’s attention, internally, to a number of problems: multiple conflicts of interest, falsification of documents, over-billing, unregistered labour, and the failure to follow up charges of fraud. These problems are, moreover, not confined to Eurostat. Officials within the Commission have reported comparable irregularities elsewhere, such as in the official European publications office, while it appears that internal reports concerning other Commission services have also pointed to serious errors committed by high officials, reports which were not followed up.

The claim that new budgetary rules have put everything to rights turns out to be a myth. The existing rules would have served perfectly well to prevent irregularities if they had only been complied with. It would appear from this that introduction of new rules was intended only to put everyone’s mind at rest, without in reality doing anything to tackle the problem. No creeping shortage of staff, no ineffective rules, but merely a fraud that could happen anywhere, to anyone, and obviously not only to a service of the European Commission.

Originally Commission President Prodi was expected to have to appear before the Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee. This Committee, consisting of parliamentarians who specialize in this sort of dossier, wants to see heads roll. Between the European Parliament and the Commission, however, it was instead decided that Prodi only had to appear before a meeting of leaders of the Parliament’s political groups, a “club” which is most marked by its awareness of the political sensitivities of the hour.

It appears increasingly that the so-called zero-tolerance with which the Prodi Commission promised to tackle fraud has come to nothing, that under Commission President Prodi it is once again clear that the customary internal messages regarding irregularities and fraud will continue to be swept under the carpet, and this will go on without any adequate response from the Parliament.

It is high time that these matters were thoroughly investigated. Sacking of Commissioners might appear impressive, but it does not solve the problem. A radical solution must begin with a Parliamentary enquiry. A peace offering by the Commission is a nice gesture, perhaps, but certainly no solution.

Erik Meijer is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party, Dutch Section of the United Left Group, the GUE-NGL

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