John Major welcomed the appointment and argued that Mr Santer was decisively different from Jean-Luc Dehaene, the candidate vetoed by Britain at the Corfu summit. But Mr Santer, Mr Dehaene and the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, all said there was no difference between the two candidates.
The decision, taken at a special summit meeting in Brussels, was seen as a victory for the British government, although the messy nomination process has left wounds. 'I think he's the right man for the job in the right place at the right time,' Mr Major said yesterday.
It represents a compromise in the face of a lack of consensus behind any of the more substantial candidates. Mr Santer, who is 57, is not considered a great thinker or doer, but rather an excellent broker of deals in his country of 400,000 people - about the size of Bradford. His 10 years in office have not been marked by controversy or great achievement.
The Prime Minister acknowledged that Mr Santer would be 'lower profile' than his predecessor, Jacques Delors. But he added: 'It is not the height of the profile which matters, but the direction in which the profile is moving.'
Mr Santer, who has been referred to by British, German and other officials as 'the lowest common denominator', asked to be judged on his acts, pointing out that he had never asked for the job but had had it thrust upon him. 'I don't think you should use the argument that I'm from a small country as a reason why I can't be a great Commission president,' he said. 'Luxembourg has in the past provided four Holy Roman Emperors: King Wenceslas, Henry IV, and a couple of others.'
Mr Major said Mr Santer held the right views - he was in favour of free trade not protectionism, decentralisation and subsidiarity.
The Prime Minister seemed to have discovered a long-held respect and admiration for Mr Santer. 'I have always regarded him as a healing force and not a dividing one,' Mr Major said. Mr Santer had been vital in negotiating the good parts of the Maastricht treaty and the Single European Act.
Mr Kohl denied that a Santer presidency marked an end to the deepening of the European Union. 'I must say I can't see any majority in the Union which supports that view,' he said.
Mr Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, withdrew his candidacy this week in what Chancellor Kohl called 'a noble letter'. In a statement to the summit yesterday, he said: 'I can recognise myself completely in the person of Mr Santer. Considering that he also comes from a small country, belongs to the same political family, shares the same economic and social vision and holds the same European concept and European ideal.'
Those ideas Mr Santer was reluctant to spell out yesterday, saying only that he would appear before Parliament in Strasbourg next week and 'will make my views fully known then'. But he emphasised that he and Mr Dehaene held the same views.
The European Parliament may raise difficulties over confirming Mr Santer's five-year term, which for the first time under the Maastricht treaty it must ratify. It has doubts about his suitability and wants to increase its own
At Westminster, the sharpest note of Tory backbench dissent was sounded by William Cash, a prominent rebel on Europe, who claimed that 'just as Dehaene was a German choice, this man will find it impossible to resist German demands'. But ministers are determined MPs will rally behind the choice.
Santer's final hurdle, page 6Reuse content