EU chief Santer ousts Brittan from key post

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The Independent Online
IN A dramatic slap in the face for John Major, Britain's top European Union official has been stripped of his most important powers.

Sir Leon Brittan is threatening to resign as he will no longer be in charge of relations with eastern Europe in the new EU Commission set to take office next year. Eastern Europe is the single most important issue on the EU agenda and Sir Leon had fought hard to keep the post, even threatening to resign according to some sources. His position is now in doubt. 'I am considering the position that has arisen,' Sir Leon said yesterday after a tempestuous meeting.

The extent of the rift between Brussels and London became evident when Downing Street said it understood that Jacques Santer, the President of the Commission, had 'an impossible job' but believed he 'had not made the best use of the talent available'.

Mr Santer reduced Sir Leon's role to dealing with trade relations with the major industrialised countries. Since a Gatt world trade deal has already been initialled, the importance of this task is vastly reduced. During yesterday's negotiations, Sir Leon asked to keep eastern Europe and said he would give up everything else, but this offer was turned down, officials said.

The discussion was reported to have been very difficult, with Sir Leon the only commissioner unhappy about the result. At the end of the meeting, he asked that his disagreement be recorded in the minutes, other commissioners said. 'It was a 'frank and open discussion', in inverted commas, and you all know what that means,' said Mr Santer. Others said there had been a noisy row.

In Whitehall there was alarm at the possibility of Sir Leon's resignation which would present Mr Major with a highly delicate decision about a replacement. Ministers also fear that a successor would not be allocated such a senior role as Sir Leon enjoys - even with his reduced responsibilities. But even assuming that Sir Leon stays, some government sources believe his authority has now been undermined.

Others see the incident as an example of declining British influence in Brussels. Only a few months ago Mr Major said that Mr Santer was the best man for the job of Commission President, after he had vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister. Britain wanted Sir Leon to be President, but was alone. Yesterday, Sir Leon refused to blame the British government.

But Mr Major and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, intervened unsuccessfully to support Sir Leon, sources in Luxembourg said. Mr Santer is likely, however, to have wanted to prove his independence. Britain's influence in Europe has also been compromised by its repeated isolation and Mr Major's arguments are likely to have fallen on deaf ears.

Conservative Eurosceptics lost no time in exploiting the snub to Sir Leon which Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend, described as a 'slap in the face for Britain'. He added: 'My hope is that our answer to this obvious insult will be for the Government to play a bit rough about the budget for 1995 which the Commission has just published.'

Weeks of conflict and negotiation ended when portfolios were handed out in Senningen Castle in Luxembourg yesterday. Mr Santer may have suspected that Sir Leon was building an entrenched position that would be difficult to attack and would challenge his own status as President. Neil Kinnock, the former Labour Party leader, takes the transport portfolio in the new Commission.

Kinnock jubilant, page 13 (Photograph omitted)