Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The two faces of the commission

Following through our three postings in the Muis e-mail yesterday, here, here and here, we promised an analytical piece today, drawing together the threads and implications.

What comes over from the e-mail, and by far the most important issue, is not that the financial arrangements of the EU are unsound – that we knew already – but quite what an unpleasant organisation the commission really is.

In fact, we knew that already. Bernard Connolloy made that very clear, when he dared to write his book about the "Rotten Heart of Europe", and there are the other "whistleblowers", not least Van Buitenen and Douglas Watt, all of whom have retailed their first hand experiences of what is it like to be at the receiving end of what is, in fact, a very vindictive organisation.

More recently, there is the disturbing case of the German journalist Hans-Martin Tillack, arrested by the Belgian police at the behest of the EU's anti-fraud body, OLAF, and the case of Robert McCoy, who lost his job as financial controller for the Committee of the Regions after revealing to MEPs in 2003 that he had uncovered widespread abuse of travel expenses.

One also must not forget the fate of Dorte Schmidt-Braun, a Danish official who was seriously harassed when she rang alarm bells over corruption in Eurostat, where over €5 million disappeared into black accounts in what investigators described as "a vast enterprise of looting". She received no support from the commission and, while she was not fired, suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Denmark.

Even then, it is perturbing to learn, direct from the horse's mouth of Jules Muis, an official drafted in from the upper reaches of the World Bank and at the top of the hierarchical tree in the commission that he too was not immune from the vindictiveness, having been told that "we have ways of breaking people like you".

But there is also the dishonesty. For those of us who remember the tumultuous days of the end of the Santer commission, when the whole shabby crew resigned en masse – only to be back at their desks after a long lunch break - the follow-on was Prodi, full of honeyed words about "reform".

What comes over from Muis, however, is that the reforms were resented, were half-hearted at best, and were never in any case fully implemented, leaving the commission still with "sordid accounting" that cannot and is not intended to function effectively.

Nor is this dim and distant history. Muis wrote his e-mail in September of last year and he paints a picture of the commission effectively as it stands today, a sinister "autocratic body with an 'incestuous esprit de corps' that uses its bureaucratic muscle to 'trash' any official who dares to question its methods."

Compare and contrast, therefore that account, with the glowing, "touchy-feely" presentation of the communications commissioner, Margot Wallström, a person we like to describe as "the commissioner for truth and reconciliation".

In her latest blog, she describes her recent visit to Ireland, where she tells us she "saw a training centre for people with mental disorders, a girls college, a very good exhibition on James Joyce and met representatives of civil society: all kinds of organisations from churches to aid workers, to anti-poverty, to environment."

What she doesn't tell you, however, is that she went to Ireland at the invitation of the National forum on Europe, a Europhile propaganda body and then made statements to the Irish media which were clearly aimed at influencing the forthcoming EU referendum, possibly in contravention of the Irish constitution.

Instead, towards the conclusion of her piece, she writes:

I went bowling with two 11-year old boys – both of them utterly surprised when I won! On the way back, I watched a beautiful and mischievous girl and for a moment I felt a deep sadness about the fact that it is definitely too late to have another child – a girl…
Politicians in general need to be careful about harnessing their own private lives to the service of their cause and you can imagine the uproar in this country if senior politicians had utilised a government website (and Wallström's blog is an official EU site) to rehearse such private issues in a transparent attempt to improve their government's image. The newspapers would have been full of it.

But what one must remember is that Wallström is part of the same commission of which Muis wrote about and she is being paid, quite handsomely, to put a "human" face on the organisation. No one can be under any illusions that the commissioner for communication is participating in a carefully conceived strategy to improve the commission's tarnished image.

The implications that can be drawn from the Muis e-mail, therefore, are that the commission has the "touchy-feely" Wallström "front" and the dark, sinister reality that lurks behind it. It is an organisation with two faces, and neither of them is very pretty.

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