Martens joins race to succeed Delors: Andrew Marshall in Strasbourg reports on the jockeying for power at the heart of the European Community

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The Independent Online
VOTE, vote, vote for Wilfried Martens. Wilfried who? You know, the ex-prime minister of Belgium.

Mr Martens has suggested to the European People's Party, to which Britain's Conservative Party is linked, that they adopt him as their candidate to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission, according to some of its members.

Next year, elections to the European Parliament will be held in July, and it has been suggested that tying the choice of president to the elections will give the post some democratic legitimacy.

The discussions are still at an early stage. But with Sir Leon Brittan letting it be known that he is in the running, the race to succeed Mr Delors is clearly on. Mr Delors has recently been suffering badly from sciatica, though there is no suggestion that he is contemplating withdrawing. But his ambitions to succeed Francois Mitterrand as French President in 1995 may push him to leave before the end of next year, when his term runs out. In any case a decision must be made in the second half of next year.

Mr Martens has long been known to be interested in the job. Others queuing up include Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, and Sir Leon, currently Commissioner for external economic affairs. On the Socialist side, Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish Prime Minister, is the best hope. Gaining the imprimatur of the EPP - which embraces both the European Christian Democrat parties and the British Tories - would have obvious attractions for Mr Martens, and would make him frontrunner.

The idea also has attractions for the parliament. It is seeking greater influence over policy. Once the Maastricht treaty is ratified, the parliament gets the power to approve or refuse the Commission. It is threatening to use this power to unseat the Commission in January 1995 if it is not promised extra powers.

The parliament is striking back in other ways, too. It has the right to vote on new members of the Community. Sweden, Austria, Finland and Norway are all negotiating membership, and the EC's aim is to have them in by 1 January 1995. Egon Klepsch, the President of the parliament, has made a veiled threat to block their accession if the Commission does not present proposals that satisfy the parliament. Support for Mr Martens would probably be dependent on promises of new powers.

All this is evidence that the parliament is starting to consider how to use its new powers to lever some more out of the member states, and raise its public profile. There is also a proposal that the parliament should sponsor a public debate on economic policy, perhaps before the Brussels summit in December. Again, the aim is to let a little sunlight into decision- making and show the parliament as a responsible institution.

The Copenhagen summit, which came up with little in the way of action, may have been the point at which the Community turned a corner. The damaging political debate over the Maastricht treaty is far from over, and German officials say that the constitutional court in Karlsruhe could still torpedo it. But thinking has begun about the Community's direction over the next few years. Beyond Mr Delors' proposals for economic renewal, unveiled at the summit, an intense debate on opening up Community decision-making and underpinning its democratic credentials is going on. Both Mr Martens' candidacy and the parliament's threats are part of this.

The campaign for the European elections in July 1994 will not begin until early next year. But already, there are signs of manoeuvring. Last week, the British Labour members elected a new leader, Pauline Green. Her mandate is to open up the party's parliamentary posts and raise its profile in Britain.

In Britain, the election will be almost entirely a referendum on John Major and his government. It could open up damaging splits. After all, as an MEP commented: 'The Conservatives can keep Europe out of most things, but not the European elections.' Tory MEPs fear that alternative Conservative candidates will run on an anti-Maastricht ticket. Labour is also privately worried that the large majority it won in 1989 at the last elections will be reduced, and feels that it is on the defensive.

But it will also be a damaging contest for several other parties in Europe. The Socialists will have a tough time in France, where they were wiped out in the last legislative elections. In Italy, where the party has been at the centre of corruption and bribery scandals, the situation is worse still. The Party of European Socialists, the EC grouping, and the Socialist International are both reeling from the year's events. Wim Kok, the Dutch Socialist leader, is said to have threatened to stay away from the Socialist leaders' meeting in Copenhagen last weekend if the Italians were present. The Italian Christian Democrats, also under a cloud, are thinking of changing their name and perhaps reconstituting themselves.

In these circumstances, using the European elections to raise its profile is a potentially risky exercise for the parliament. The election could see a raft of anti-Maastricht candidacies. It may also see new groups arriving, as Europe's regional parties are likely to have a strong showing. The parliament is concerned that with the new Committee of the Regions being set up after Maastricht, its political influence may fragment yet further.