Election '97: Reaction to speech surprises Santer

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The Independent Online
As Jacques Santer, the beleaguered European Commission president, packed his bags for a quiet trip to Amsterdam on Monday, he had little idea that he would return to Brussels to find himself reviled in the British press as a "pipsqueak".

Mr Santer, a well-meaning Luxembourger, had no inkling that the dreary speech in his briefcase would cause an outbreak of unbridled euro-scepticism in the general election.

For, to be sure, this was the very last thing Mr Santer had intended. The speech, entitled "A message for the Sceptics", was supposed to prove that integration was the only way to avoid European "gridlock".

Mr Santer may even have thought his timely words would actually help that nice, moderate, Mr Blair, on his path to victory. It is no secret that Mr Santer would like to see Mr Blair win on May 1st, believing him to more favourable towards his European project.

Perhaps he also hoped that British anti-Europeans would be unable to comprehend his faltering English anyway.

Mr Santer must, however, have been aware that during a British election campaign his "message to euro-sceptics" would have particular resonance across the Channel. Within hours of the address, his speech was being played up in Britain as a clear sign of the new federalist threat.

Inevitably, Britain's pro-Europeans were forced on the defensive and Labour's moderate stance on integration looked shaky, to say the least.

So angry was Tony Blair about Mr Santer's "Amsterdam cock-up," as the episode is already known, that an aide called Brussels yesterday telling the president's office that he had made disastrous intervention in the British election.

It is not the first time Mr Santer and his team have revealed their astonishing ignorance of the nature of the British political scene, thereby undermining their own efforts to get their message across. Mr Santer did not even consult Sir Leon Brittan, or Neil Kinnock, the two British commissioner's, who would certainly have advised against making the speech at this sensitive time.

"We had no idea that the speech would be seen this way," said a member of Mr Santer's inner circle.

"Stupid," was how some critics in Brussels described the speech. "The timing could not have been worse," said others.