Labour MEPs in the vanguard of uprising

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JACQUES SANTER only emerged as the candidate to follow Jacques Delors because of John Major's veto, wielded because of his doubts over the 'method' by which Jean-Luc Dehaene was chosen. All the more ironic, then, that it was British Labour Party members of the European Parliament who yesterday threatened to cripple Mr Santer's chances of becoming president of the European Commission because of the way he rose to the top of the list.

''We object to the way that Mr Santer emerged as a candidate,' said Christine Crawley, the deputy leader of the Labour Group, 'and to the betrayal of the spirit of the Maastricht treaty, which states that the Parliament must be consulted.'

The decision to oppose Mr Santer's candidacy, taken by a majority vote among the party's 62 Strasbourg members, was followed by a similar decision by the 198-member Socialist group. Today the luckless Prime Minister of Luxembourg will address the 567 members of the Parliament, and will seek to persuade them of his suitability. Afterwards, they will vote on him by a simple majority.

The Parliament's Greens, Liberals, Communists and anti-Europeans all seem set to vote against him, as well as the Socialists. The 152-member European People's Party, the centre-right group from which Mr Santer hails, will vote for him, mostly. But that may not be enough.

Today's vote is not required by the Maastricht treaty, and has no legal force. Politics, however, is different from law. If the Parliament refuses to endorse Mr Santer, his chances will be in trouble. He has committed himself to withdrawal if it becomes evident that he lacks support in the assembly. This could throw the European Union back into a crisis and force the EU leaders to find a new candidate.

Mr Santer has three problems. First, the method by which he became president- designate is politically suspect. He only emerged as a candidate after manoeuvring at the highest political levels, with most of the action taking place behind closed doors. The Maastricht treaty requires EU leaders to consult the European Parliament. They did not, in the view of the Parliament, take this commitment seriously enough. 'If Parliament is going to be anything more than a rubber stamp, there has to be proper consultation,' Wayne David, the leader of the British Labour group, said.

Secondly, there are important objections to the man. Even Mr Santer's political allies feel he lacks what George Bush called 'the vision thing'. When questioned by the Socialist Group on Tuesday, he appeared weak and lacking in ideas. Many of the MEPs feel that Mr Santer emerged purely because Mr Major blocked the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister.

The third reason is a desire to cock a snook at Britain's leader. Mr Santer was at pains to say that he was no different from Mr Dehaene, and shared his commitment to federalism. Mr Major has said that he is very comfortable with Mr Santer and that he is totally different from Mr Dehaene.

This entails a large contradiction that has embarrassed both Mr Santer and Mr Major, and has made both Conservative Euro-sceptics and federalist Euro-deputies distinctly unhappy.

The new Parliament clearly intends to make its weight felt. Its new president, Klaus Hansch, is clever and politically astute. He will want to carve out a role for the Parliament ahead of the 1996 review of EU rules. It is possible that the president-designate of the European Commission will be the first casualty of this new seriousness. As one of the sharper wits in Strasbourg put it yesterday, Mr Santer may turn out to be 'the right man in the place for a very short time'.