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Europe's leaders stung by corruption

After Italy, Spain and France, the search for sleaze has now spread to Britain where four Conservative members of Parliament are under investigation for accepting money from big businessmen to put challenging questions to Prime Minister John Major in the House of Commons.

Two have resigned as junior government ministers, the latest Tuesday just hours after pledging to remain in office and contest the charges made by the Guardian newspaper.

First under Margaret Thatcher and now under Major, the Conservatives have been in power for, lo, these 15 years, which may be too long for any single party in a democratic country.

The government is now under pressure, even from some elder Conservative statesmen, to agree on an independent investigation of the latest charges, which are not the first. So far, Major's intention has been to confine them to a Commons committee where Conservatives have the controlling majority.

To a reporter who grew up covering the workings and pageantry of these venerable British institutions, the selling out of the hallowed daily question time in the House of Commons is as shocking as the tasteless irrelevancy within the younger generation of the British royal family.

The other day I wrote that, for all the infidelities, Buckingham Palace was not about to burn down. But I wonder, too, where the change in the perceptions of institutions that once seemed indestructible will eventually lead.

A generation ago, an American secretary of state named Dean Acheson remarked that having lost an empire, Britain had not yet found another worthy role. It is still true.

Few any longer talk of "Great" Britain. The selling of questions in the House of Commons to greedy business interests for $1,500 a throw might seem pretty remote were it not a manifestation of the corruption eating at the values and foundations of modern representative democracy _ and not only in Britain.

In 2{ years, the revolt of a small group of investigating magistrates in Milan has swept away the first Italian republic, which until the end of the Cold War governed Italy in a cozy anti-communist party alliance.

Since the discovery of a minor Socialist official taking a bribe in Milan in February 1992, some 5,000 businessmen and politicians have been arrested.

From that mess emerged Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's leading media magnate, who earlier this year became the first prime minister of what Italians call their second republic. But he has had to be forced, kicking and screaming, into putting his business interests into something like a blind trust.

The French usually deny that anything like the scale of Italian corruption has happened here, and probably it hasn't. Nevertheless, some 60 "affaires" of various kinds are pending, two ministers in the conservative government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur have been forced to resign, and one of them is in jail as investigations continue.

Big business is in a state of shock because prosecutors are going after the chairmen of some of France's major companies.

With his former communications minister, Alain Carignon, in jail and Industry Minister Gerard Longuet forced to resign while investigation goes on into the financing of both his Republican Party and luxury Riviera villa, Balladur has belatedly proposed annual audits of ministers, members of parliament and top officials.

Although he himself isn't involved, his chances of being elected president next year have dimmed somewhat. And corruption is shaping up as a major issue in the campaign that already has begun in everything but name.

Finally in Spain, two government ministers have had to quit after the former head of the National Police disappeared at the same time as $2.5-million was discovered missing.

One of the downsides of "capitalism" is that money talks the loudest, and when it talks to elected politicians, when they try and sometimes succeed in spending their way into office, democracy is at risk.

More and more money is needed as Europe's politicians adopt the inflated television campaigns made in the U.S.A.

Nevertheless, Europeans are always staggered to hear how it's done and what it costs in America _ when, for instance, a candidate in Virginia who makes a virtue out of having lied to Congress raises $17-million in an attempt to get into it.

Or they are stunned to hear of a California millionaire who seems willing to devote nearly $20-million of his own money to knock off an incumbent. Or a casino lobby that can raise $10-million in an attempt to push its casinos into Florida.

Germany has gone a long way toward public financing of campaigns, an unpopular idea that is nevertheless growing elsewhere. If taxpayers themselves don't finance campaigns, then where does the money come from? And for whose profit?