European Union Crisis: A typical burgomeister airbrushed into history

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The Independent Online
FOUR YEARS ago, when he succeeded Jacques Delors, The Independent wrote that Jacques Santer, the unknown, largely unremarkable prime minister of Luxembourg, had been "airbrushed into history" when he was chosen to head the European Commission. Yesterday, he came within a whisker of being airbrushed out of it.

The man who occupies the most important job in the European Union was nearly removed from it. And apart from a face suddenly removed from the ceremonial photographs, scarcely a soul would have noticed.

Jacques Santer has left no enduring mark on the governance of Europe. True, he has been present at great events - the Treaty of Amsterdam, the start of enlargement to the east, above all the launch of the single currency - but more as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern than Hamlet. No "plan Santer", no "Santer initiative", will trouble future students of the new Europe. He will be remembered only as the first Commission president to be pushed to the brink of resignation by the European Parliament.

Even the sins of fraud and nepotism for which his Commission is being held to account are not his own. The worst Mr Santer can be accused of is not running a tight ship. In reality, his threatened departure was a measure of the imperfections of the European constitution, which gives the Strasbourg parliament the stark choice of sacking either the entire Commission or none of it. For a man thrust into a job he did not seek, it would have been a slightly unfair end.

Mr Santer was a lawyer and civil servant before entering politics and becoming an MEP, party leader and eventually prime minister in 1989. However the image that most lingers is that of alderman of the city of Luxembourg, a post he held for three years in the late 1970s. Silver-haired, ruddy- cheeked and with a suitable touch of embonpoint, he is the burgomeister made flesh. Affable and easy going, Mr Santer is a firm believer that few of life's problems cannot be solved over a decent lunch.

After the intense and visionary Jacques who preceded him, this Jacques was probably what Europe wanted: an anti-Delors, a man from a small country who depended on his patrons (first and foremost Chancellor Helmut Kohl), someone who would not rock the boat. And until this week, he has not.

To give Mr Santer his due, in a quiet fashion - and contrary to appearances created by the current kerfuffle - he has begun to reform the Brussels bureaucracy, a matter his predecessor would not stoop to attend to. His problem is that, unlike his predecessor, he is not feared by those around him. Now that Mr Delors has gone, old baronies are reappearing. The commissioners who count are those such as Leon Brittan, Mario Monti, Karel Van Miert, even that indefatigable headline-grabber, Emma Bonino. Mr Santer is the front-man, long on bonhomie but short on influence.

But if so, that is also a reflection of the times. All the prestige of Mr Delors could not mask the shift of EU power away from Brussels to national capitals, which began in earnest with the negotiation of the Maastricht treaty. The member states wanted a weak president in Brussels, and they chose one.

Curiously, Mr Santer largely owes his appointment to the British, courtesy of John Major's veto of the favourite to succeed Mr Delors, the then Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene. By a process of elimination, they arrived at Mr Santer, who had the further advantage for the government in London of being, it was assumed, a less than ardent believer in the F-word.

As not infrequently in matters European, the British got it wrong. To call a Luxemburger a federalist is almost a tautology. How could it be otherwise in a country the size of Oxfordshire, wedged between France, Germany and Belgium, whose history has largely been written beyond its borders? In addition to the local Letzeburgesch dialect, Mr Santer speaks French and German, as well as the endearingly accented English of a continental villain from Gilbert and Sullivan. By instinct, a Luxemburger thinks European. The British had secured their low-profile president - but not a president who would slow the EU's self-propelling momentum towards greater integration.

For a while, Mr Santer's sheer blandness seemed as if it might earn him a second five-year term. This crisis has obviously dashed those hopes; but even before the corruption charges engulfed his Commission, the political winds in Europe had moved against him. In 1994 he had the crucial backing of conservative governments in London and Bonn. Today the centre-left rules in Germany and Britain - and almost everywhere else for that matter; the new presidential photofit suggests centre-left and a large EU country. Centre-right Luxemburgers need not apply.

And so to the present crisis, which has shown Mr Santer at his worst. Even the most genial burgomeister, especially one who is not directly elected to the job, is apt to become a mite arrogant after a while.

In truth, it would be amazing if there was no fraud in a total EU budget of pounds 60bn. What sticks in the craw is the burgomeister's unconcealed feeling that the very suggestion something is amiss in the town hall is an impertinence, an indignity to which his institution should not be subjected. But it has been, and both the EU and Jacques Santer are probably the better for it.