Weekly News Review Archive

1st March, 2002

EU Convention Fever Sweeps EU Convention

Failure to invite delegates from the ten countries expected to join the EU in a couple of years’ time to participate in electing the so-called Praesidium, the ruling body of the soon-to-be-assembled Convention, was just one of the issues around which criticism revolved when the expensive, unnecessary body in effect came together for the first time in Brussels this week. Though its first official meeting is next week, Friday 28th March saw the election of the Praesidium. The decision to exclude candidate country delegates from the election appears to conflict with the Laeken Declaration, which states that "The accession candidate countries will be fully involved in the Convention's proceedings. They will be represented in the same way as the current Member States (one government representative and two national parliament members) and will be able to take part in the proceedings without, however, being able to prevent any consensus which may emerge among the Member States." It was criticised roundly from all sides, with left, right, pro- and anti-EU MEPs and national MPs weighing in.

In addition, national MPs were particularly critical of the short notice at which the election was called, which prevented some delegates from being able to attend. Invitations did not go out until this week.

The pompously-named Praesidium will be composed of the Convention Chairman (sic) and Vice-Chairmen and nine members drawn from the Convention (the representatives of all the governments holding the Council Presidency during the Convention, two national parliament representatives, two European Parliament representatives and two Commission representatives)."

The Convention as a whole will consist of 105 members from 28 countries, including the candidate countries, although the candidates will not have voting rights. Members will include one delegate from each member state government, two national MPs from each parliament, 16 members of the European Parliament and two Commission representatives. The 13 candidate countries will each have one government representative and two national parliament members on the Convention.

Spectre will be trying to keep readers up to date with developments at the Convention, which is expected to last several months. According to the EU authorities , it provides a wonderful opportunity for the “citizens of Europe” to shape the continent’s future, so please try to contain your excitement. Asking workmates or people engaged in casual conversation at bus stops “What do you think of the decisions taken by the European Union Convention, then?” is probably not advisable, though it could be useful in repelling unwelcome sexual advances.

The fact that hardly anyone knows or cares about this costly PR exercise is unlikely to bother the euro-fanatics responsible for its existence. They long since concluded that they were the centre of the universe, and as they never move outside their own narrow elite circles, are blissfully unaware of how they are viewed (or ignored) in the world beyond. 

More fraud allegations rock Commission

Paul van Buitenen, the Dutch official who forced the mass resignation of the Commission led by Jacques Santer three years ago, told European Parliament members this week that he would go public with a mass of evidence of continuing fraud unless Neil Kinnock, the Commissioner in charge of administrative reform, responded seriously to a 235-page dossier of corruption allegations, backed by 5,000 pages of documents he submitted last August..

The Prodi Commission took office in 1999 over pledges to introduce sound management and control of the 20,000 strong administration in Brussels. Mr Kinnock has promised radical reforms of the Commission's management and control system. A new anti-fraud office, Olaf, has been established.

Mr van Buitenen points to misuse of vocational training funds, of Leonardo program, as well as fraud in construction contracts at future EU buildings in Luxembourg. Mr van Buitenen, a mid-ranking official in Luxembourg, who risked being sacked when he first unveiled documents incriminating the Santer Commission in 1999, is also disappointed that civil servants accused of mismanagement have been rotated to new jobs without loss of pay or seniority.

Ombudsman: passive attitudes in EU Commission

The European Commission is claiming that the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the workforce of the EU institutions is caused by the fact that not enough people of colour apply. Fortunately the European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, has undoubtedly heard this kind of complaisant drivel before, and is not taken in by it. Mr Söderman’s investigation comes in response to a Dutch complainant who points out that while more than 30 million people of ethnic minority origin live in the EU, hardly any of them are employed in the structure of the European Communities.  He has criticised the Commission for what he calls its “passive attitude towards the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the EU institutions and bodies,” insisting that it take steps to obtain information concerning the chances of people of ethnic minority origin in the recruitment procedure, and provide him with such information before the end of April.

Commission criticises too slow liberalisation

EU Commissioner for Monetary Affairs Pedro Solbes has issued a stinging criticism of what he sees as the unacceptably slow pace of liberalisation and deregulation in the Member States. The criticism, contained in a draft report, goes to the heart of what is likely to be a central issue at the forthcoming Barcelona EU Summit.

The Commission is particularly critical of the failure of a number of member states to meet commitments in the energy, financial services and telecommunications sectors, though pressure is also on to force postal services, public transport and a number of other essential services on to the misnamed “free market.”

Governments are slowing up on liberalisation because it has such a destructive and divisive effect on the provision of the sort of essential services the public ownership of which was, until recently, unquestioned even by the right. Liberalisation and deregulation either destroy services completely or create two-tier provision, with those who can afford them being offered high tech, rapid, efficient service while everyone else sees things go from bad to worse. The Commission could not care less about this as it does not have to be elected. Governments cannot always take such a cavalier attitude.

“European Union ate my city”: Léopold Station latest victim

Plans to extend the European Parliament’s gigantic Brussels office block are set to signal the end for one of the neighbourhood’s last remaining buildings of genuine charm and interest, the Luxembourg Station, formerly known as the Quartier Léopold station. Local people and sympathisers have been fighting the plans to destroys almost the last remnants of what was, only twenty years ago, a part of town famous for its Bohemian atmosphere and its established population of artists, musicians and writers. It is starting to look increasingly likely that the old station building just outside the European Parliament will be torn down to make way for a new parliamentary extension (the so-called D4 and D5 buildings), despite the determination of local residents to continue their campaign to save the station until the battle has been won.

To be fair, the Parliament itself has called for the preservation of at least parts of the building, including the ground floor galleries and the royal waiting room above them. The Parliament’s Bureau passed a resolution to this effect at the end of last year, and this week saw a public meeting in the assembly’s buildings, at which a number of MEPs spoke up in defence of the station. A public hearing will take place between local residents and the European Parliament on Monday afternoon 25 February in the European Parliament.

The old station building, which is almost 150 years old, was designed by the famous Belgian architect Gustave Saintenoy in a neoclassical style and was inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Only the facade, however, is protected by law, and Brussels authorities have a terrible track record, with what were acknowledged as some of the world’s greatest architectural treasures falling foul of greed, corruption, short-sightedness and apathy.

The demolition of beautiful buildings in Brussels is often preceded by a long period during which they are deliberately neglected to the point when they are falling down, ugly and dangerous. This is clearly what has happened in the case of the Luxembourg Station, which has been allowed to decay to the point where restoration would be extremely expensive.

The scandalous neglect of the station is only the most visible current example of the destructive effects the presence of the EU has had, and continues to have, on what with just under a million inhabitants is one of the Union’s smallest national capitals. Recent urbanisation schemes have succeeded in transforming parts of the city into pleasant, and even pedestrian-friendly areas, though much more needs to be done.

Unfortunately, the city has become dependent on the EU, though most of the employment it provides for local people consists of low paid and insecure jobs as security guards, cleaners and catering staff. Any benefits the institutions may bring are hugely outweighed by the disruptions involved. EU officials pay no Belgian tax and, in any case, only the young and relatively low-paid live in the city, with the mass of professional employees choosing to live in the pleasant Flemish towns and villages which surround what is a largely French-speaking enclave in an otherwise Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

With a huge enlargement scheduled for as early as the year after next, extra office space and more meeting rooms will be urgently needed. In addition, despite considerable barriers in the way of any reform, it is surely only a matter of time before the European Parliament also moves its headquarters to Brussels.

The EP is currently bound by a protocol in the EU treaties to meet 12 times a year in Strasbourg. Yet recently published data reveal that every monthly session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg costs a million euro more than if it was held in Brussels.

The five day meetings of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in France last year cost 3,9 million euro, in contrast to the 2,9 million euro taxpayers would have had to pay if members and staff were to remain in the Brussels.

France is always blamed for this ludicrous state of affairs, and quite fairly, as French insistence that it must continue has long stood in the way of any change. The other people to blame, however, are those whom you might expect to be least keen on this monthly exodus, the Parliament’s staff. Though everyone hates the disruption of spending what is invariably a high-pressure week in what has been dubbed “Stress-burg”, as it’s possible to stay in a perfectly decent hotel and eat well and still make a tidy profit on your fixed daily allowance.