The resignation of all 20 European commissioners in the small hours of Tuesday morning has been greeted with shock and delight in many European chancellories.
British Prime Minister
House of Commons
on Tuesday afternoon that the crisis offered a chance for "root and branch reform."
But despite these noble sentiments, it's not clear that the proper lessons will be learned. Instead, the affair will almost certainly do nothing to solve the
chronic lack of democracy.
This democratic deficit -- which plagues many other EU institutions, including the
European Central Bank
-- will be the cause of further scandals that can undermine the future credibility of the euro.
The resignations, although a surprise, had been brewing for months. In January, the
-- the EU's executive bureaucracy, appointed by the member states -- barely halted a no-confidence vote in the
, an assembly of some 700 deputies from the EU member states.
The no-confidence motion was initiated because of overwhelming evidence that numerous commissioners were either personally corrupt or severely negligent of corruption within their departments. To escape the censure vote, the commission promised to appoint an independent committee to study this evidence. The committee reported on Tuesday afternoon with devastating effect.
Its findings: "It is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility" within the commission.
During the committee's investigations, numerous commissioners thought they could excuse themselves by claiming they had no knowledge of what was going on in their departments -- a tart illustration of the weak standard of ministerial responsibility in continental European politics.
The report named three commissioners for apparent nepotism and described a culture of cronyism and corruption in the awarding of contracts and in the distribution of funds. It alleged that fictitious contractors, who recklessly overcharged for non-existent work, took over whole swathes of the commission's activity.
One British professor cashed in $3,000 a day for fictitious work. Other instances of double billing -- such as one contract worth $64,000 per year -- are quoted. The report concludes that the mishandling of funds was "so serious and illustrative of a dysfunctional organizational climate and structure that
it should have been seen by those who were in charge."
The resignation of the entire 20-person team remains, for the moment, a piece of theater.
All 20 commissioners were in their offices and at their desks as usual today, carrying on their work in a "caretaker" capacity. They are likely to do this until the Berlin summit on March 24 and 25, although Blair called for European Commission President
to leave office as soon as was reasonably possible.
Speculation is already rife that the former Italian prime minister,
, may be in the running as Santar's successor. Before he steped down last week, there had also been persistent rumors that the former German finance minister,
, was bored in Bonn and wanted to be president of the Brussels commission himself.
The key issue on which to focus, however, is not personalities but structures.
The reason why so much corruption has accrued to the European Commission is very simple: The commission is a powerful but unaccountable bureaucracy.
Despite grandiose talk of a wholesale clean-out at the top, the nature of the European Commission and the powers it wields are likely to emerge unscathed from the present crisis.
Recent failed attempts at reform illustrate why. European heads of government are currently on course to approve a "reform" of the
Common Agricultural Policy
, or CAP -- which accounts for over 50% of the EU's budget -- that will, in reality, be little more than the fine-tuning of an unwieldy and highly wasteful system of state subsidy.
A previous plan had been to repatriate control over some of the CAP budget to member states. Had this reform been introduced, financial control over EU spending might have improved.
Europe is thus unlikely to learn the real lesson of the crisis: It is better to govern through elected politicians than through unaccountable bureaucracies.
This is just as true for European economic and monetary union, which provides for member states to remove control of their monetary policy from the parliamentary domain and transfer it to a committee of independent bankers meeting in secret instead.
Americans may not think this so alarming. After all, the American electorate doesn't vote for the
governors -- and they frequently meet in secret to decide monetary policy. But a real comparison would be if the dollar were abolished and replaced by a pan-American currency run by a central bank in Panama.
The European construction is not equivalent to the coming together of the American colonies to form the U.S. in 1776, as is often suggested. It is instead equivalent to stripping the U.S.
of its powers, subordinating American law to the whims of government leaders from Peru, Canada and Cuba, and staffing a U.S.
with Nicaraguan and Colombian judges.
Europe's single currency project is thus constitutionally different from the American practice of having an independent central bank. The independence of the Fed is the result of the settled constitutional belief of the American people that it is better to take monetary policy out of the daily political fray.
By contrast, European monetary union does not grow out of a pre-existing constitutional settlement. Instead, it is designed to overthrow the existing constitutional arrangements in Europe and create a political union among different states by the back door.
If the European Commission has run into the sands, therefore, it is precisely because it is based on the assumption that democracy is an obstacle to good government -- and that bureaucrats know best.
Thus, the spring cleaning at the commission is not a new start for Europe. It is instead only preparing the ground for an even bigger snarl-up in the future.
John Laughland is a commentator on European political and economic affairs. He has written for several British national dailies and published two books, The Death of Politics: France Under Mitterand and, most recently, The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea.