In these pages two weeks ago I concluded an article on the European Union with the observation that “so far it flies,” quoting from one of the books under review, Redrawing the Map of Europe by Michael Emerson. Barely had those words been printed than the Union—or a main part of it at any rate, the European Commission—hit an air pocket. In the early hours of March 16 all twenty commissioners, who together make up the Union’s permanent policymaking body, and who head its civil service, resigned en masse. Where the center of Europe ought to have been, there was suddenly a great big hole. It was plugged temporarily by the commissioners’ continuing to serve as “caretakers” until national governments, who appoint them, could choose a fresh set. At a summit meeting in Berlin on March 24, leaders of the Union’s fifteen governments agreed to invite Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy, to take over as the next Commission president and to form a new Commission as soon as possible.
There was no precedent for these events. But then the history of the European Union goes back a mere forty years and there is no precedent for a lot of the things that happen in Brussels. Some people may have foreseen this latest upset. I manifestly did not. And it was clear from the thunderstruck face of Jacques Santer, the Commission’s president since 1995, that he was equally amazed at the course events had taken, despite being nominally their master.
The brief explanation is that the commissioners resigned because they had exposed themselves to the verdict of a committee appointed by the European Parliament in January to investigate “fraud, mismanagement and nepotism” in the Commission (to quote from the committee’s terms of reference). This ad hoc group of five investigators—all past or present senior public servants, from Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, and Spain—published a report on March 15 accusing the commissioners of supervising their agencies, staff, and spending programs so loosely that in some areas corruption was endemic. It gave six examples. They included a program launched in 1989 to stimulate European tourism, which had lost more than 10 percent of its $50 million budget to theft. A job-training program was so riddled with petty frauds that the investigators needed twenty close-typed pages to describe them all.
All this made for entertaining reading. Britain’s Europe-hating newspapers splashed the grisly details across their front pages as proof positive that the European Union was indeed a conspiracy of corrupt continentals in which Britain should have no part. Yet, on more considered reading, the resignation of the entire Commission was not self-evidently the necessary response to the bare facts contained in the report. Other factors were at work.
Fraud and waste have been a problem for decades at the margins of the EU’s budget, which amounts to almost $100 billion a year. Each year the Union’s auditors produce a gloomy …