Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Soft on corruption, soft on the causes of corruption...

At least the Financial Times is still on the case, opining that José "stand-by-your-man" Barroso has crowned his first day in office by making a big mistake.

This latter-day Tammy Wynette has tempted fate when he allowed his spokeswoman to describe the previously undisclosed and amnestied conviction of Barrot for party funding offences as a "minor case". For her to add "Mr Barroso feels that under these conditions Mr Barrot will be an excellent commissioner" has created a hostage to fortune. The FT's conclusion is that Barrot must go.

To sugar the pill: the FT adds:

To many this will appear disproportionate and even unfair. By all accounts, Mr Barrot is a hard working commissioner. His performance at his hearing before the European parliament last month was better than many.

But he has been in an increasingly untenable position since Thursday, when Nigel Farage, one of the UK Independence party members of the European parliament, disclosed to an astonished assembly that Mr Barrot was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence in 2000 for his role in a party funding scandal.

The details of the Barrot affair appear minor against the long and sorry history of party funding offences in many continental countries. France had no campaign financing law before 1991 and Mr Barrot was one of many politicians to land in trouble. He was convicted in his role as a leader of the CDS, the French Social Democratic Centre. The sentence did not bar him from public office and, because it was erased under a 1995 amnesty, has not created a criminal record. There have been European commissioners with blacker records than his.

But Mr Barrot's failure to mention the episode either to Mr Barroso or to the European parliament has shown an inability to appreciate the need for commissioners to be totally candid if they are to earn the trust of an increasingly sceptical European public.

The Commission itself has yet to recover from the mass resignation of a previous Commission in 1999 amid allegations of mismanagement, nepotism and fraud. Moreover, as Graham Watson, leader of the European parliament's liberals pointed out, the conduct of which Mr Barrot was found guilty is illegal in many member states.

Yesterday, Mr Barroso let it be known that he would have preferred to have been informed by Mr Barrot about his past before finding out amid the uproar of last Thursday's session of parliament.

But it seems to have occurred to no-one in the Commission or parliament to have asked Mr Barrot about any previous offences. Applicants for a visa to enter the US are always asked: "Have you ever been arrested or convicted for any offence or crime, even though subject to a pardon, amnesty or other similar legal action?" These words should be added to the questionnaires that all future commissioners and high EU officials must answer.
In the meantime, it looks like only Watson’s Liberals are nailing their colours to the mast, over and above the Farage faction – there’s unlikely allies for you.

What will be interesting in the weeks to come is where the British Conservatives stand. Once again they may have cause to rue their membership of the EPP which, under the tutelage of Jacques "Chopper" Toubon, will be vehemently opposed to any motion of no confidence in "Wheel" Barrot.

With the Buttiglione saga behind them, the commission is crowing about the new commission being a testament to the "democratic" credentials of the EU, but if the "colleagues" in the EU parliament sit on their hands, and do nothing about Barrot, it will in fact confirm what we have held all along, that the EU is soft on corruption and soft on the causes of corruption.

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