Friday, 13 May 2005

Corruption in the EU Commission – Barroso row surfaces again

BRUSSELS – The European Parliament lodged a motion of censure against Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday (May 12), calling for the European Commission president to shed more light on his dealings with Greek billionaire Spiros Latsis.

MEPs plan to debate the matter at a mini-session in Brussels on May 25 and 26, before voting at the June plenary in Strasbourg, in line with procedure on a cooling-off period.

The proposal needs to secure two-thirds of the votes cast as well as an absolute majority of all 729 MEPs to get through.

British eurosceptic delegate Nigel Farrage forced the motion onto the agenda by presenting the signatures of 74 fellow-minded MEPs to the parliament’s administrative chief, Julian Priestley, on Wednesday.

The move follows new revelations that the commission approved 10.3 million euro of Greek state aid to one of Mr Latsis’ ship-building firms last September, one month after Mr Barroso enjoyed a free holiday aboard Mr Latsis’ yacht.

“I suspect that for years the commission, the executive, the government of Europe, has been lobbied by big business in secret, in private, in a way that is totally unacceptable,” Mr Farrage said.

Motion likely to fail
If the motion is passed it could theoretically bring down the Barroso commission, with some protagonists hinting that more new facts about commissioners’ hospitality could come to light before June.

But many MEPs are keen to distance themselves from the campaign.

The leader of the centre-right faction, Hans-Gert Pöttering, reportedly pledged that none of the EPP-ED group’s 267 MEPs will end up on the motion of censure petition.

A spokesman for the socialist group leader Martin Schulz indicated, “You don’t bring down the college based on pure speculation. Those who signed the list are not exactly mainstream ministers, to put it politely. These people do everything they can to bring Europe into disrepute”.

Meanwhile, the commission dismissed the whole affair as “absurd”, pointing out that the Latsis decision was taken by the Romano Prodi college and that Brussels settles state aid cases bilaterally with member states, rather than with the companies involved.

“This is a minority initiative. Most MEPs feel the matter has been settled”, the commission source indicated.

Pressure brought to bear on rogue MEPs
The motion could unravel before a vote if the MEP petition falls below the required minimum of 74 names, with ministers free to add or subtract their signatures from the list up to May 25.

Some MEPs said that the leaders of the largest parliamentary factions are already trying to bully members into abandoning the campaign.

“There is a massive and systematic effort to do just that”, British conservative MEP Roger Helmer said, adding “How Mr Pöttering proposes to do that with me, I’m not sure”.

Four Polish MEPs reportedly jumped ship last night, while other new ministers came on board, causing the petition to fluctuate between 74 and 79 names.

The parliament also got tongues wagging when it opted to authenticate around 10 signatures on the original list, with one observer suggesting that the move was aimed at pushing the censure vote out of the way of the 29 May referendum in France.

But the administration poured cold water on the theory. “We always check a number of signatures, because some of them are written quickly and they might be a bit wonky”, Mr Priestley explained.