'Lowest common denominator' for top EU job

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The Independent Online
JACQUES SANTER, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, seems all but certain to emerge as the successor to Jacques Delors, diplomats in Brussels said yesterday.

The post of president of the European Commission is one of the most powerful in the European Union, but the appointment of Mr Santer, who has a reputation as a pragmatist and a negotiator rather than an ideologue or a man of ideas, could signal a decline in the influence of the Commission after the controversial decade of Mr Delors's tenure.

Germany is to preside over a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Friday, and diplomats said yesterday they thought it unlikely there would be another deadlock, after John Major's decision at the Corfu summit last month to veto the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister: 'The Germans would not have called this unless they were reasonably certain that there could be a deal,' said one. The name of Santer has featured prominently in discussions in national capitals in the last week, diplomats added.

There is still a shortlist of names circulating that also includes Poul Schluter, the former Danish prime minister, and Giuliano Amato, the former Italian prime minister. It is possible that if for some unforeseen reason Mr Santer is blocked, one of these might come forward. But officials said Mr Santer seemed to gaining support in discussions between member state capitals.

He is acceptable to France and Germany, the EU's powerbrokers, as well as to Britain, but is nobody's first choice. 'Santer is the very personification of the lowest common denominator,' said a diplomat yesterday. None of the diplomats and officials spoken to showed any enthusiasm for his appointment, but said his ascent reflected the need to find a compromise before the European Parliament session next week. The parliament must be consulted on the choice of president.

London is unlikely to block Mr Santer's appointment as it seems to have nothing against him, and finds some some things in his favour. 'He has stood up and been counted on some very important issues,' said a diplomat yesterday.

Mr Santer's government produced the bits of the structure of the Maastricht treaty that Britain liked best, the 'pillars' that separate different areas of activity. Luxembourg is often on Britain's side over financial and trade issues, and it is a member of Nato.

Mr Santer is not perceived as being as much of a federalist as Mr Dehaene, though he is committed to European integration. And it would be hard to label a man who comes from such a small country as an advocate of 'big government'.

The national culture of politics in Luxembourg is one of coalition, compromise and consensus and Mr Santer has flourished in it, but he has also performed well on the European stage, with Luxembourg chairing the EU during the complex negotiations that led to the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty.

Mr Santer, 57, was educated in Strasbourg and Paris and has been Prime Minister since 1984. A member of the Social Christian Party, he has risen steadily through the ranks from civil servant to member of parliament to finance minister to head of government. He had in any case been expected to come to Brussels as Luxembourg's commissioner. However, to set against the positive factors is the poor record of the last president from Luxembourg, Gaston Thorn, whose term in the 1980s were blank pages.

Mr Santer himself hardly has a record as a mover and shaker and both his Finance Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Foreign Minister, Jacques Poos, are better known in Europe. He is likely to preside over a weakened Commission, and is unlikely to have much clout in the wider world.

The appointment of a second-ranker reflects the failure of the first round of candidates, Ruud Lubbers and Jean-Luc Dehaene, prime ministers of the Netherlands and Belgium. Putting up Mr Santer completes the Benelux round. It also shows a tendency to look to a lowest common denominator. However, Bonn and Paris, the locomotives of European integration, can look to him as their man.

The effect on how Europe develops is hard to calculate. The Commission has been losing influence and much depends on the other Commission appointments. If Sir Leon Brittan, the Commissioner for Trade, stays on, which seems almost certain, he will become the power behind the throne, which suits the British government.