An inquiry into allegations that the European Commission is seriously mishandling legal action against Italy for alleged job discrimination involving 1,500 foreign-language lecturers is being sought by 32 members of the European Parliament.
The commission has been threatening proceedings against Italy on behalf of the lecturers, who claim university discrimination on the basis of nationality.
Lecturers' representatives met social affairs and employment commissioner Padraig Flynn in Brussels last week to discuss leaked confidential correspondence between the commission and Italy's higher education ministry.
Letters between July and December 1998 reveal a weakening in the commission's presentation of the lecturers' case on the basis of unverified information from the Italian authorities. Higher education ministry chief of staff Francesca Zannotti and Mr Flynn, who signed the letters, declined to comment.
The socialist group of 30 MEPs has tabled a resolution for an urgent debate, which has already won much cross-party support.
Group leader Hugh McMahon, Labour MEP for Strathclyde West, said: "The commission's decision to press on to the next stage of legal proceedings just prior to their meeting with the lecturers is disappointing. Despite having passed resolutions at the European Parliament and won Euro-court decisions, we have reached a crisis that requires a solution in the Council of Ministers to bring Italian universities into line with European law."
One interpretation is that a political solution has already been found: while a 1996 European Parliament resolution upheld associate professor status and salaries for the lecturers, the case now turns on acquired rights relating to minor pay adjustments for length of service.
The lecturers claim that the commission has distanced itself from its June 1997 call for guarantees of full professional and economic benefits deriving from the conversion of the old discriminatory annual contracts to the new open-ended ones.
Reports by two legal advisers representing 700 lecturers from more than 30 universities accuse the commission of having uncritically accepted not only "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory statements" but also "false information" from Italian authorities on contract conversion and the role of the Italian government in preventing universities from implementing community law.