The sudden resignation on March 16 of the European Union's executive leadership has left the 15-member body reeling on the eve of critical decisions about its future.
But the mass resignation, in the wake of an independent report detailing fraud, mismanagement, and cronyism at the top of the EU, also marks the first time that the powerful and often distant European Commission has been held responsible for its behavior.
"The positive thing is that this forces accountability to the top of the agenda," says Mark Leonard, director of the London-based Foreign Policy Centre, a think tank close to the British government.
"Something has to be done" to reform one of the most powerful unelected bodies in the world, he added.
"Clearly we will have to try at all levels of the institution to show a real willingness to change things" acknowledges Thierry Daman, a spokesman for the Commission.
Commission President Jacques Santer announced his group' s collective resignation at EU headquarters in Brussels on the morning of March 16. Hours earlier, an independent panel of experts released a stinging report accusing the Commission of a "loss of control" over the EU administration, and holding individual commissioners responsible for "instances of fraud, irregularities, or mismanagement."
The 20 commissioners are meant to be the political masters of the 17,000-member Brussels bureaucracy that runs the European Union, but their role is ambiguous and all-encompassing. Not only is the Commission the only EU body authorized to initiate legislation, it also implements it and controls the $100-billion-a-year budget.
Although the six-week panel investigation found no proof that any commissioner profited from fraud, the expert committee said former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson had "failed to act in response to known serious and continuing irregularities" in her science and research department, and had given an unqualified friend a sinecure in her entourage.
The report also slammed Mr. Santer for showing no "meaningful interest" in the Commission's Security Office, for which he was responsible, and allowing a "state within a state" to develop with disastrous consequences.
More broadly, the experts launched a vehement attack on the overall atmosphere in the European Commission, where they said "it is becoming difficult to find anyone who has even the slightest sense of responsibility" for his or her actions. "That sense of responsibility is essential," the report concluded, because "that concept is the ultimate manifestation of democracy."
FOR at least the next two weeks the current 20-member Commission will stay on in a caretaker capacity. But its standing will be badly damaged as it goes into a key summit in Berlin March 25, when EU heads of government and Commission leaders are due to thrash out the EU budget from 2000 to 2006. This budget is central to the EU's plans to welcome new members from Eastern Europe, such as Hungary and Poland, over the next few years.
It is up to member governments - who designate commissioners - to choose the replacements. Most political observers in Brussels believe they will make the change soon after the Berlin summit.
The mass resignation is a victory for the generally toothless European Parliament, which initiated the fraud investigation by using its only genuine power - refusing to sign off on the EU's 1996 budget, citing reports of financial mismanagement.
"I am delighted that our citizens have had the chance to discover a European Parliament that has real power," exulted Nicole Fontaine, a vice president of that assembly. The show of strength comes three months before Europe-wide elections to the Parliament. European voters are generally apathetic at such polls, unconvinced that the Parliament counts for much.
But even if the only elected officials in the European power structure do push for reforms in the way the EU is run, as they are expected to do, control over the body's strategic agenda is likely to remain in the hands of the Commission itself and of the European Council, comprising the 15 heads of member governments. That means that "it is up to the heads of government to step into the breach and get the EU out of this mess," argues Mr. Leonard.
After years of allowing the Commission to develop its reputation as a secretive and unaccountable organization that wastes taxpayers' money, "they have to develop a program that seems in touch with people's priorities," Leonard says.
If the EU is to build on the new accountability, he adds, "it really needs a bold and ambitious package of measures that people will believe in."