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Daily Notebook: 14-09-99(1)

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"Time for glasnost" says Prodi

"Time for glasnost" says Prodi

Tuesday 14 September - Commission President-designate Romano Prodi, came before the House this morning to express the hope that tomorrow's vote would mark a new beginning in relations between Parliament and the Commission. He drew attention to the plans for reform of the Commission, noting that in February next year Neil Kinnock would be presenting a comprehensive Blueprint for Reform, taking into account the report of the Wise Men. "It is time for some Glasnost" in the Commission, he declared, stressing the importance of transparency. Mr Prodi also announced his intention to present an Annual Political and Economic Report on the State of the Union at the beginning of each year.

Turning to the issue of enlargement, Mr Prodi underlined the need for a comprehensive strategy for setting out how, over the next 25 years, the EU would increase to up to 30 member states. Enlargement needed to take place in stages and he believed that at the forthcoming Helsinki Summit serious consideration should be given to setting a firm date for the accession of those countries which were best prepared. As he put it, "We come from different countries. We speak different languages. We have different historical and cultural traditions. And we must preserve them. But we are seeking a shared identity - a new European soul." Turning to countries for whom membership was a more distant prospect, Mr Prodi proposed closer cooperation, perhaps a form of "virtual membership" as a prelude to full membership. The people of the Balkans had to resolve their conflicts before they could enter the EU but they should receive aid from the Union. Mr Prodi also stressed the need for close relations with near neighbours such as Russia and Ukraine and Mediterranean countries. He also underlined the importance of EU/US relations.

The President-designate then spoke of the challenges presented by the next inter-governmental conference. It was not sufficient to settle for minimal reform or proceeding by stages with a series of IGCs, he said. Mr Prodi then went on to underline the importance of environmentally and economically sustainable growth that would create new jobs. Here he drew particular attention to the importance of information technology and announced his intention to launch an initiative in this area for the Helsinki Summit. He also underlined the need to adapt welfare systems to current demographic trends.

In conclusion, Mr Prodi called for "a new spirit of cooperation between our institutions". He finished with a ringing call for "a new partnership, working for the people of Europe. A new Commission. A new European Parliament. A new start."

Hans-Gert Poettering (D, EPP/ED) was broadly in tune with Mr Prodi's words and echoed the calls for a new relationship between Parliament and the Commission. He welcomed Mr Prodi's favourable response to proposals to strengthen the relationship between the two institutions. These proposals included a call for Commissioners to place the highest priority on attending Parliamentary committees; a regular inter-institutional dialogue; and comprehensive institutional reform. He also welcomed the fact that the President-designate had agreed to consider seriously any vote by MEPs censuring an individual Commissioner. However, Mr Poettering expressed his group's serious doubts about some nominee Commissioners - especially the Commissioner-designate for research policy. He wanted a satisfactory response to these concerns. EU officials, he emphasised, were generally efficient and effective, however decisive action needed to be taken in cases of wrongdoing.

It was then the turn of PES group leader Enrique Barón Crespo (E) who began by asking if Mr Prodi was ready to propose joint EU action for East Timor. He then stressed that the Commission deserved Parliament's support although his group had reservations about Mrs Palacio. He wanted a Commission that worked well and an EU that would have a new contract with its people. Mr Barón Crespo called for more rigorous action to tackle unemployment and defend human rights and also for more transparency. He believed that next February's announcement on institutional reform by Mr Kinnock would provide an opportunity to approve the Statute of Members. He also looked forward to Mr Prodi's comments on the next IGC. In conclusion, he stressed that he had no major reservations about the proposed Commission.

For the Liberals, Pat Cox (Munster, ELDR) promised a "positive and constructive" attitude towards the Commission in dealing with the priorities for the years ahead. The hearings, he said, had proved to be an extremely useful exercise although he would have welcomed more opportunity for in-depth questioning. The Liberals, he said, would be voting in favour of the new Commission and did not deliberately set out to target individual nominees, he added. Commitments made by each candidate in the hearings would be monitored closely although he did feel one point to be settled was a certain degree of overlapping between responsibilities in such areas as food law and food safety, trade and the environment. He welcomed the emphasis placed by Mr Prodi on the importance of electronic technology and e-commerce for the future and reforms of accounting and auditing procedures proposed by the independent group of experts and indeed the positive response of the Commission to these. On political responsibility, while he accepted Mr Prodi's line of argument in support of the College as a whole, he did say that he would expect a new President of the Commission to respond swiftly to any Commissioner who failed to command the respect of Parliament.

For the Greens, Heidi Hautala (Fin, Greens/EFA) too was concerned to see the Commissioners accept individual responsibility for their actions. At the same time, she wanted to see a strong institution and the Commission not relegated merely to a secretariat for the Council. As to the future, she looked forward to the new approach of the Commission towards Parliament being translated into action whereby the Commission takes on board amendments supported by a majority in the House. In the long term, however, she felt the credibility of the EU would depend on more transparency and institutional reforms based on much wider consultation with the whole of society. Taking up the theme of transparency, Francis Wurtz (F, EUL/NGL), speaking for his group, while acknowledging the Commission paid lip service to this, felt it had a long way to go to regain the trust of the citizens. He could not go along with a "neo-liberalist" attitude towards the labour market and looked in vain for Commission support for workers faced with mass redundancies. This was not forthcoming, he said and as such he could not commit his group to voting in support of this new Commission-designate.

For the UEN, Gerard Collins (Munster), on the other hand, looked forward to a new beginning based on harmonious relations between Parliament and the Commission. He welcomed Mr Prodi's commitment to drawing up a work programme in close consultation with Parliament, pointing out that the Amsterdam Treaty had extended the co-decision procedure and Parliament's ability to influence legislation. The forthcoming IGC would deal with the more tricky question of agreeing Treaty changes to enable enlargement to go ahead, but for him the priority was to streamline decision-making procedures and create the necessary background to enable the three institutions, Council, Parliament and the Commission, to work in tandem. Only in this way would the EU be seen to be successful, he said.

Several other points emerged from the debate with, for example, Jens-Peter Bonde (Dk, EDD) expressing the view that no real answers to the outstanding questions facing the EU had been given at the hearings and therefore it was necessary to pursue a policy of constructive opposition to the Commission, while Francesco Speroni (I, Ind) felt that Mr Prodi's record in Italy, especially by not supporting policies to keep jobs, meant that he was not a suitable candidate for President. Johannes Swoboda (A, PES), on the other hand, underlined the need for both reforms and transparency to bring about a stronger Commission which would be necessary to win back the confidence of Europe's citizens. Taking up this point, Nicholas Clegg (East Midlands, ELDR) warned that, unless the real challenge of making the EU and the Parliament in particular relevant to Europe's voters was tackled, then voter apathy as had been seen in the recent elections would only get worse and pose in the long-term a threat to the EU itself. Parliament should follow the example to be set by the Commission in reforming its own procedures and also monitor the Commission more closely.

Commenting on the hearings held by the Industry Committee, Eryl McNally (Eastern, PES) felt that fair examination had been given to prospective Commissioners Liikanen and Lamy but this was not the case for Mr Busquin who had been singled out for unfair treatment, she felt. On balance, she was satisfied by the performance shown by the various candidates but she warned Mr Prodi that he would only gain the confidence of Europe as a whole if he showed clarity, leadership, honesy and humility. He should pay more attention to social Europe and environmental issues, she added.

Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire and the Humber, EPP/ED) stated that Conservative MEPs were opposed to the return of any former Commissioners. As they had been denied a vote on individual Commissioners, they would be voting against the return of the Commission as a whole. He also considered that the "left-wing Commission" did not reflect the views of Europe's citizens as expressed in the recent European elections. He was unhappy that some issues of probity had not been resolved and considered that some of the nominee Commissioners were simply not up to the job. Mr McMillan-Scott was not happy that MEPs could not hold individual nominee Commissioners to account by voting on them in the recent hearings. In this way, he argued, members had been denied their democratic rights. He was also displeased that Mr Prodi had declined to face an open hearing. The British Conservative leader stressed that his group was not opposed to the Commission as an institution but anti-fraud and corruption. Brian Simpson (North West, PES) expressed his unhappiness with the answers of Mrs Palacio to the Parliamentary hearing when she had been questioned on the flax subsidy scandal. He believed that the issue was clearly not closed and that Mrs Palacio had been "a little economical with the truth" in the hearing. A hostile tone was struck by Michael Holmes (South West, EDD) who condemned a "charade of a democratic debate". Nothing, he believed, could justify Mr Prodi's "agenda to gain control over the member states by stealth" and to develop a "dangerous scheme to create a new nation called Europe". Underlining his group's intention to vote against the Commission, Mr Holmes also called for the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Commenting on the hearings heard by the Industry Committee, Eryl McNally (Eastern, PES) felt that fair examination had been given to prospective Commissioners Liikanen and Lamy but this was not the case for Mr Busquin who had been singled out for unfair treatment, she felt. On balance, she was satisfied by the performance shown by the various candidates but she warned Mr Prodi that he would only gain the confidence of Europe as a whole if he showed clarity, leadership, honesy and humility. He should pay more attention to social Europe and environmental issues, she added.

Stephen Hughes, (North-East, PES) on the other hand, looking at the prospective Greek Commissioner, Ms Diamantopoulou, praised her commitment to the Social Chapter and felt that with proper encouragement she would prove a useful Commissioner. Priorities were to tackle social exclusion, improve social dialogue and try to involve Parliament in discussions on the economic guidelines.

The debate continues.

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Technical group disbanded

Technical group disbanded

Tuesday 14 September - MEPs voted 412 to 56 with 36 abstentions to endorse the recommendation of the constitutional committee that a technical political group comprising parties of different political complexions could not be formed according to Parliament's rules. This means that the 18 member TGI group formed after the June elections can no longer be constituted.

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