Fraud and mismanagement at the European Commission have tainted the Leonardo project, but it deserves to succeed, writes Sue Waddington
As the European Commission considered the implications of the March report of the "committee of independent experts" on fraud, nepotism and mismanagement, their attention was drawn to the chapter on the Leonardo da Vinci programme. "This is Leonardo's Last Supper," one is reported to have said as they decided to hand in their collective resignation.
Many MEPs agreed, as they learned about the allegations of fraud and mismanagement in Agenor, the contractors used by the Commission to administrate Leonardo. When Agenor then declared itself bankrupt and the Belgian judicial authorities sealed the building in which the Leonardo documents were contained, it appeared that Leonardo I had come to an end, and the plans for a new Leonardo programme would not come to fruition.
As rapporteur for the new Leonardo programme (2000-2006), I had made a number of new recommendations which were about to be debated in the European Parliament when the rumours about fraud and mismanagement began. It was not until months after the first reading that the Parliament was officially informed of the problems. Then the attention was focused on Commissioner Cresson and her role in the scandal, rather than on the implications for the EU's flagship Vocational Training Programme.
The Leonardo programme has enabled thousands of institutions, academics, trainers, businesses, students and trainees to take part in trans-European projects, experiencing learning and working in another member state, contributing to European networks, and sharing new approaches. The programme was seen as a laboratory for innovation, and was in danger of losing its credibility because of the crisis in the Commission.
Universities and colleges in the UK were concerned that their bids were not being processed and grants delayed. Consultations for the new legislative text continued, but there were still significant differences between the Parliament's and the Council's positions. The Council had rejected the new proposals aimed at giving greater priority to lifelong learning, measures to encourage participation of under-represented groups and to improve the complementarity between Leonardo and the European Social Fund.
In January the German presidency took over the reins and the negotiations. The formal and informal processes continued in the Parliament to prepare for the second reading of Leonardo II. Suddenly and unexpectedly it became clear that unless the usual planned parliamentary timetable was speeded up, Leonardo II would not begin on time on January 1, 2000.
There were now two contradictory pressures: to take the time to ensure that the new programme did not suffer from the problems of the old one and to hasten the negotiations to ensure that Leonardo II could start on time.
Political differences then began to appear. The Christian Democrats wanted to demonstrate their displeasure with a discredited commissioner by refusing to deal with Leonardo II until the autumn. The Socialist group wanted to use the opportunity to gain agreement for the Parliament's amendments to be incorporated in the legislation. The Socialist group won the vote to press ahead.
I believe that the creative partnership which was established
between representatives of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission has produced a good result. The Council agreed to accept many more of the Parliament's proposals in exchange for the Parliament's agreement to speed the process up.
The Commission is dealing with the backlog of Leonardo I bids and grant approvals and is consulting MEPs on the role and rules for a new improved administrative structure.
Leonardo II (unlike the new Socrates and Youth for Europe programmes) was finally approved by the Parliament, Commission and Council before the May 1 deadline. Preparations are in hand for it to begin on time. It will be a better programme - reflecting the greater recognition of the importance of vocational training to Europe's economic and social development. It is aimed at
influencing European training systems, supporting lifelong learning approaches, addressing non-participation, encouraging innovation with greater emphasis on research, evaluation, innovation, dissemination and the exchanging and embedding of good practice. I hope that many of our universities and colleges will be encouraged to take a full part in the new opportunities that it presents.
Sue Waddington is the MEP for Leicester. She is the European Parliament's rapporteur for the Leonardo da Vinci II programme.