Yesterday he conceded Mr Prodi is a credible candidate for the job, which comes up next year. Mr Santer's prospects took a battering with allegations of fraud in the Commission. Although they relate to a period before his term of office, two commissioners have threatened to sue newspapers amid growing acrimony and declining morale in Brussels.
Mr Santer's unofficial re-election campaign had been based on the lack of suitable candidates to succeed him, and Mr Prodi had been thought an unlikely prospect because he was holding together the centre-left Olive Tree coalition in Rome. Its disintegration two weeks ago freed Mr Prodi, who is expected to gain the backing of his successor, the former Communist Massimo D'Alema.
Mr Prodi won plaudits for leading one of the longest-running Italian governments and for securing his country's participation in the single European currency.
At a conference of industrialists in northern Italy Mr Santer said: "Prodi's work ... was extremely effective ... I believe he is a great European political personality who can be on a par with all the other many candidates for the important functions at (EU) level."
The day before, Mr Santer had refused to rule himself out for a second term, saying he was not officially a candidate when he won his current term.
The Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana, is seen as a possible alternative. The Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, is also a possible contender.
A diplomat yesterday said the fraud issue, which has provoked a furore in the European Parliament, had destroyed Mr Santer's prospects.
His defenders say this is unfair: "The only fraud we have detected so far took place under a different president," they say. They point out that he has made few genuine enemies during his tenure, which has been significantly lower- key than that of his predecessor, Jacques Delors.
Mr Santer, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, has a second handicap as a Christian democrat at a time when two-thirds of EU nations are socialist or social democrat. In Strasbourg on Wednesday Mr Santer said he had led "a large coalition with social democrats in my own country ... It was a success and it lasted 11 years. I have no problem co-operating with other parties."Reuse content