Summary: The European Parliament has backed away from a call from rapporteur James Elles (EPP, United Kingdom) to approve the European Commission's accounts for 1996. Taken on December 17, this decision does not have any formal institutional implications, as the procedure merely involves referring the Elles report back to the Committee on Budgetary Control. "This is clearly a setback for the European Commission", said Erkki Liikanen, the Commissioner for the Budget. Jacques Santer, the Commission President, sought to play down the significance of the vote, by proceeding the day before to publish a statement asking the Parliament to clarify its position by tabling a motion of censure, should MEPs refuse to agree the account. So the Parliament and the Commission find themselves entangled in dicey political situation that could throw a dark shadow over the first few months of the Germany Presidency in 1999, and this does not augur well for the Agenda 2000 talks on reforming the EU's system of funding ahead of the Community's expansion to the East.

As early as the December 15 plenary session debate, James Elles succeeded in stirring up a tangled web of conflicts and controversies, starting with the fact that the rapporteur himself sought to distance himself from the conclusions of his own report by challenging the circumstances in which the Committee on Budgetary Control approved the document by a slim majority. The vote on the report, two days later, served to increase the confusion and the Commission bears a heavy responsibility for the events that led to the Commission's present state of suspended animation. The PES, in agreement with the Parliament's President Jose-Maria Gil-Robles (EEP, Spain), had ruled out any possibility of budgetary clearance being withheld by using an interpretation of the rules of procedure to stipulate that an absolute majority was required (even though a simple majority was enough to approve the 1996 accounts). However, the Commission issued what was universally judged as a heavy-handed statement and made a last-ditch attempt at piling the pressure on MEPs. In so doing, it incurred the wrath of a sufficient number of Parliamentarians to prevent the Elles report from being adopted. Censure motion? The Commission statement suggested that a refusal to sign off the 1996 accounts would be a political act serious enough for the Parliament to push the process as far as tabling a motion of censure against the EU executive...

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