Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Seven minutes to change the world

Today, at a time yet to be decided (as we write) José Manuel Durao Barroso, president of the EU commission, will stand up in the chamber of the EU parliament in Brussels to defend himself (and his commission) against a motion of no confidence, brought by Nigel Farage and 73 or more other MEPs.

Although there will be no vote on the day, the result is a foregone conclusion. All the major political groups oppose the motion and, when it comes to a vote in Strasbourg, they will easily defeat it.

Farage will have exactly seven minutes to make his case, giving him about a thousand words to set out an indictment that could, with justice, run to hundreds of pages. Apart from the headline issue of Barroso taking hospitality from multi-billionaire Spiros Latsis, when one of his companies was awaiting a decision from the commission as to whether it could be paid over €10 million in state aid grants, there are many other issues that could be aired.

For instance, it is of some considerable public interest to establish the precise nature of the funding at Athens Sparta Airport, and the precise role played by the Latsis Group of companies, not least Eurobank, which handled the payments of EU money.

In a country that is awash with EU money, under the multi-billion euro "Community Support Framework III" programme, a country that is also a by-word for corruption, questions might be asked about the funding of the motorway and road building programme – set to receive over €9 billion in EU funds and loans.

In particular, questions could be asked about the tenders for the Elefsina to Patra Motorway and the Ionian Road, and the contract, valued at over €200 million for which two consortia, Olympic Roads and the Aegean Motorway Group, have been recently short-listed with commission approval.

The latter group should, perhaps, get special scrutiny as it includes a firm in the Lamda Group – one of Latsis's companies – and a firm called Hochtief, one of Germany's largest building companies, one, incidentally that managed the Sparta airport contract.

Hochtief is an especially interesting company, with a chequered history. It has been named in relation to the bribery scandal in the World Bank-Funded Lesotho Water Project, where a dozen major international dam-building companies lavishly bribed at least one top official on the project, allegedly giving nearly US$2 million in bribes over ten years. The Highlands Water Venture, a consortium which included Hochtief, was directly linked with $733,404-worth of bribes.

Then there is the affair of the Southern Cross Airport Corporation Limited, to which the federal government awarded the ownership of the Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport, involving Hochtief in circumstances which had an Australian "waste and corruption" website flag it up. Add to that, the affair of the Berlin airport, and why Hochtief was disbarred from bidding for redevelopment by the courts, and an interesting picture emerges.

Yet, Hochtief is one of the companies on whose behalf Schröder intervened with President George W. Bush, asking him to invite them to bid for $4.5 billion worth of contracts. In this context, it could well be asked what professional or other links there are between Schröder and Hochtief, and the role this company might have played in funding Schröder's SDP.

One might then ask why Schröder took it upon himself to intervene personally to prevent the EU parliament's socialist group calling Barroso to explain his links with Latsis, one at least of whose companies is linked with Hochtief.

All this Farage could do, but for the fact, in what is a parody of "transparency", he has precisely seven minutes. In short, Farage has seven minutes to change the world – or, at least, the EU. He isn't going to be able to do it, but he might lay down some interesting markers.

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