Euro MPs earn right to be taken seriously

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The Independent Online
THE European Parliament seems to have won a costless victory by narrowly agreeing to the candidacy of Jacques Santer for President of the European Commission.

MEPs expressed their anger at the undemocratic way in which Mr Santer emerged, and ensured that never again will national leaders ignore the assembly's feelings. But had Mr Santer's candidacy failed, the wrath of governments might have ensured that any strategic political gains were short- lived. As it is, the Parliament has emerged with some bankable promises on future political reform, a heightened media profile and a sharper style.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Parliament this week rejected a piece of legislation on telecommunications, intended to set the pace for opening up networks in Europe. The principle here was also democracy: the Council of Ministers and the Parliament are, to all intents and purposes, both legislatures and the Parliament believes they should be treated the same way. MEPs want consultation before legislation is passed and equal rights to national ministers after it is enacted.

Whether or not the Santer fiasco heralds a longer-term change in the way the Parliament does business, the assembly's first week has certainly shown that the political landscape is changing. The elections last month were a messy affair, with opposition parties generally doing well against governments and a fragmentation of the centre-right. But the lessons to be drawn from that are only just becoming evident.

The debate over Mr Santer was a recognisable contest between different views, different styles and different ideologies, not the soggy posturing that often characterises Parliament and marked something of a new departure. The political lines have sharpened with the split between left and right emerging - uncharacteristically - as the main dividing line this week. With the arrival of a Christian Democrat as Commission president, but Socialists in key positions in the Parliament, further such clashes seem inevitable.

National differences too, came to the fore this week. The combination of Tony Blair's election and the fine performance put up by Pauline Green, leader of the Socialist group, put the British Labour Party in the spotlight. Their pugnacious debating style and taste for hard-ball politics differentiates them sharply from some other groups. The German Socialists also played a crucial role on the left, while the right was held together by the German Christian Democrats. Parliament has always been a Germanic institution, compared to the Commission, where the French tang became almost overpowering under Jacques Delors. This week, however, Strasbourg had a slightly more British taste than normal.

By contrast, the French have had a fine time lamenting the erosion of their political influence. 'Some in Strasbourg do not hesitate to speak of the French 'suicide',' wrote Liberation's correspondent at the Parliament in one of a series of critiques of French Euro-strategy.