It's Time To Let In Some Light

Neil Kinnock, the former leader of Britain's Labour Party, was mulling over some of the accusations leveled against him since he was named vice president of the European Commission last summer. "I'm going 'to liquidate people.' I'm going to--what else have they said?--Oh, I'm 'conducting a blitzkrieg.' I'm a mixture of Stalin, Hitler and Thatcher with a little bit of Blair." That's pretty serious name-calling from a bunch of gray-suited bureaucrats. But that's just a sample of the acrimony in Brussels these days as the European Commission is reorganized, the European Union's whole way of doing business is rethought and a lot of time-servers are starting to think that their time is running out.

Nobody ever claimed that the job would be easy. Reform has been tried, and failed, more times than any commissioner remembers. Yet despite bitter complaints by a lot of vested interests, some major changes now seem inevitable. Suddenly, at least at the top, "clarity," "simplicity" and "transparency" are the new buzzwords of Brussels. And not a moment too soon, it would seem, since scandals forced the mass resignation of President Jacques Santer and his entire European Commission last March. "Part of our mandate for modernization and reform comes from weaknesses in the past," says Kinnock. "Part of it comes from the urgent demands of the immediate future." What face will Europe show to the world in the next century? And to its own people? That's what's at stake, and that's why passions are running high.

The European Commission is the central administrative body of the European Union, which used to be an international organization but today looks like--something else. Founded with six members in 1957, the Union now has 15--and will quickly grow to perhaps 25. Almost certainly, other European countries will soon join the 11 that now form the currency union. But there's no equivalent of George Washington, "the father of his country," to grace the >1 bill, and e pluribus unum, the Latin inscription on the American dollar, still has a vaguely subversive ring on the eastern edge of the Atlantic. More than 40 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, it's no easier than it ever was to say precisely what the Union is, or stands for.

That makes the everyday tasks of those who work for the EU difficult to define. It isn't just the Commission--the permanent bureaucracy--that's at fault. The Council of Ministers, in its spanking new building, shares an institutional traditions that is more diplomatic than democratic. Leaders of the EU's member states could have insisted long ago on changes in the ways by which the Union's institutions do business; they have signally failed to do so. Throughout Brussels, secrecy has long been considered a cardinal virtue. For years, the various "directorates" of the Commission didn't even have names, just Roman numerals for identification.

Then last year a series of ethical and financial scandals erupted. Since the resignation of Santer's team, Romano Prodi, the new president of the Commission, has been scrambling to let in some light, clean up old mistakes and get ready for new members. He plans, in short, to put the house in order before the new rooms are added on. If that doesn't happen, Prodi has warned, "the Union will not be able to afford to deal with enlargement and rethink its institutional system at the same time."

To lay the groundwork for reforms, Prodi asked three senior European statesmen to look at the Commission's problems. Led by former Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, they concluded that "most Europeans don't understand the workings of our institutions." The report proposed that an Inter-Governmental Council meet next year to reform the system and revise its treaties.

That plan now seems to be on course. Prodi and Commissioner Michel Barnier, a French Gaullist, issued a memorandum this month laying out priorities. First of all, they'd like to see more decisions made by majority votes. (Since the founding of the Community--as it then was--member states have insisted that they retain a veto over decisions affecting their vital national interests.) The reformers also called for "coherence" and a continuation of "the political construction of Europe." That's one of those phrases where the original French doesn't translate into "English" English, but is easily understandable to Americans; they'd say "to build a more perfect union."

The greatest challenge facing the institutions of the EU, however, has little to do with such high-flown language. The Union, says the Dehaene report, must "connect with the people." And for that, vital changes must come in Brussels. So Prodi has told his fellow commissioners to "speak in telegrams": the point is not just to be brief, but to be clear. Meanwhile the directorates have lost their numbers, and been given names. One day, even the meetings of the Council--now scandalously veiled in secrecy--may be open to public scrutiny.

Kinnock, the point man for administrative reform, asks questions like: Who do the staff unions actually represent? Why isn't there independent auditing of subcontractors? In Brussels, that passes for dangerous radicalism. For the Commission staff of 22,000, for instance, there are seven unions, plus 25 full-time union officials, supported by 27 staffers, all on the EU payroll. Under the circumstances, independent verification of the size of their membership would seem a reasonable requirement. Demanding that a union have more than 1,000 members before the administration will deal with it hardly seems excessive. That's what Kinnock would like to do, but the unions are used to guarding their numbers like state secrets. They know that under his guidelines, many of the unions will effectively be eliminated, and 20 of their 25 officials will lose their EU paychecks. So the fight has been ferocious.

Regular staff aren't the only problem, and may not be the worst. The Commission's manner of subcontracting thousands of jobs to consultants is an invitation to scandal. In a notorious incident that came to light last year, the then Commissioner Edith Cresson, a former Socialist prime minister of France, had given a scientific consulting job to a dentist from her hometown. There were many similar cases. And why not? "Nobody was judging the job in terms of value for money," says Kinnock. The new Commission proposes to change that by creating "a centralized and supervised system of examination and accounting and reporting."

No open, democratic system could have hidden such scandalous practices for so long. But the European Union, even as it preached democracy for member states, never saw any reason for the Commission to practice it. Lobbyists and special interests got all the information they needed, the public got nothing and the arrogance of the Commission's bureaucrats was legendary. It is only now that the Commission is considering new rules for administrative behavior that require staffers to answer a citizen's inquiry, to do so in the citizen's own language, and in a reasonably short period of time.

The concept of citizenship is key to reforms, says EU Ombudsman Jacob Soderman. You ought to have rights as a "citizen of Europe," not just of a member state. Even though the 1992 Maastricht Treaty conceded as much, "this notion has not come through in all places," says Soderman. Here again, it's only half the story to blame the Brussels bureaucrats; the member states and their ministers could have done far more to make a reality of a "citizen's Europe." Meanwhile, there are some positive signs. Next month the Commission is supposed to propose rules on public access to its documents and proceedings. "This is of course the real test of whether they want to open up the house or not," Soderman told NEWSWEEK. Will there be a public register for the documents so they are easy to find? Will those files include only the paper generated by the Commission, or the complete correspondence? Such technical questions, in Soderman's view, make the difference between a working democracy and a sham. "In the Soviet Union, if you looked at the Constitution it was perfect," he says. "But nobody followed up on it."

That analogy is useful. In the European Union, the reforms now taking shape could change a lot of the old system. But bitter epithets like blitzkrieg don't quite capture the spirit Prodi and his reformers want to promote. The term they like to use is glasnost.