Insider notes from United Press International for Sept. 18.
Is the European Commission about to commit hara-kiri all over again? Romano Prodi's new Commission was born in 1999 after the previous Commission resigned en masse over a fraud and misgovernment scandal. Prodi promised to be Mr. Clean with zero tolerance for any new scandals, but new fraud inquiries into the letting of contracts by Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency, are now rocking Brussels. They have provoked demands for the resignation of Spain's Pedro Solbes, the Finance commissioner who is nominally responsible for Eurostat. (A lot of that pressure is coming from France and Germany who fear Solbes won't let them off the hook for breaking the EU's own strict rules on maximum budget deficits, but that's another story.) Now the trouble is spreading. OLAF, the EU's fraud watchdog, has widened the inquiry to include the EU Publications Office in Luxemburg, for which Culture Commissioner Viviane Reding (a Luxembourger) is responsible. And other EU departments have signed contracts with at least one of the offending private companies in the Eurostat case even after the fraud inquiry was launched -- a big no-no under EU rules. This drags two more Commissioners into the frame: Britain's Chris Patten of External Affairs, and the Danish Development Commissioner Poul Nielson.
The real issue in 1999 was less fraud than the power struggle between the EU Parliament and the Commission. The constitutionally weak Parliament used its one weapon, refusal to approve the Commission's budget, to force the old Commission into its unprecedented mass resignation. That same power struggle is looming again, with the Portuguese Socialist Paul Casaca, vice-chairman of the Parliament's budget control committee, demanding a public grilling of Commissioners Patten and Nielsen. The key date will be next Thursday, Sept. 25, when Prodi will face questioning from all the leaders of the Parliamentary parties.
The Pentagon seems highly appreciative of the Japanese government's determination to dilute the post-1945 pacifist Constitution and turn the Self-Defense Forces into an increasingly conventional military. Japan is to become the third country, after those especially close allies Britain and Israel, to be provided with the Joint Direct Attack Munition kits that turn dumb iron bombs into "smart" guided weapons. There's a $110 million provision in next year's military budget for the kits and the upgrading of the F-2 warplanes that will delver them. The kits themselves, a strap-on system of camera plus guidance system and steering fins, cost less than $20,000 each.
Jacques Klein, the top U.N. envoy in Liberia, is telling U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that former Liberian President Charles Taylor is still trying to influence events through his mobile phone. Taylor, who agreed to step down in a U.N.-brokered deal in which he pledged to stay out of Liberia affairs and be spared prosecution, is in exile in Nigeria. U.N. sources tell UPI hears the Nigerians have deliberately been giving Taylor enough rope to hang himself by making the phone calls. Get it documented, then wave the bills in his face and accuse him of violating the conditions of his exile. The supposed outcome is that Taylor will be expelled -- right into the hands of the prosecutor of the Special Court in Sierra Leone for prosecution on war crimes charges.
Having hugely embarrassed the Irish Republican Army, by getting three of its hard men arrested for allegedly training the guerillas of the left wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, Bogota is about to do the same to Israel. The security forces in Guatemala have ordered the arrest of three Israeli citizens for allegedly supplying some 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to a private army of rightist militiamen, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The group claims to be anti-communist and dedicated solely to protecting private property of ranchers against the Marxist guerillas of FARC, but it has been labeled as a terrorist outfit by the U.S. Department of State. The Israelis are insisting they are both innocent, and simple private citizens with no connections to any government agency. The Guatemalans seem persuaded otherwise. This could get messy.