The Commission is out of commission

THE battle between Grand Prix racing and the European Commission took a new twist last week when all 20 of the European Commissioners resigned in the wake of a scathing report into fraud and mismanagement. The Commission had agreed to an independent investigation in January in order to avoid being fired by the European Parliament.

The published report demolished the credibility of the Commission, alleging corruption and widespread mismanagement. It concluded that "it is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility." Among the specific criticisms were allegations that the Research Commissioner - former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson - had hired her dentist to be an advisor on AIDS. She was also accused of failing to respond to serious irregularities in the Leonardo educational program.

Immediately after the report was published deputies from the European Parliament renewed their calls for the Commission to resign.

The Commission - which was due to finish its five-year term in January 2000 - includes the Competition Commissioner Karel Van Miert. The 57-year-old Belgian was not criticized at all in the report and hopes that when a new Commission is constituted he will be reinstated. In the meantime he continues in a caretaker role. "I would like to exercise my mandate until the end of the year," Van Miert said, adding that he intends to retire from politics after that.

By while Van Miert said that it would be business as usual, in the days after the Commission's resignation there were a rash of decisions from the Competition Directorate including the go-ahead for the mergers of Renault and Fiat foundry operations; BAT and Rothmans and several others. According to European competition rules the Commission has legal deadlines on mergers. If it does not meet them, they clear automatically. This is not the case in investigations into the abuse of dominant positions - such as the investigation currently going on into Formula 1.

While there may be no obvious impact on F1 as a result of the Commission's resignation, the prestige of the organization has been seriously weakened. This may have knock-on effects not only in the battles with Formula 1 but also in the implementation of a European tobacco ban.

But while there is muted rejoicing in F1 circles, there is a danger that the ousting of the Commission will result in an even stronger threat from Europe in the future. "This is an opportunity for a new beginning and a new culture of political responsibilities and democratic accountability in the European Commission," said Wilfried Martens, one of the leaders of the European parliament.

The future of the Commission will be decided this week when the heads of government meet on Wednesday. They may decide to appoint a new Commission but might also leave the existing structure in place until June, when a completely new Commission could be appointed for the full five-year period.

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