New European Parliament: Confidence grows as Parliament comes of age

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THERE was bitter disappointment among ardent supporters of the European Parliament yesterday at the way the newly-elected body backed away from controversy narrowly to approve Jacques Santer as President of the next European Commission. From the sidelines the Parliament appeared to have an excellent case for throwing out the Luxembourger on the grounds that he had been foisted on it without proper consultation by the European Council.

What better way then for the newly-elected to flex its muscles than to make a principled stand. If John Major could veto the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, at Corfu, then surely the Parliament - acting on firm procedural grounds - could block Jacques Santer in Strasbourg. Rejection would have plunged the European Union into another crisis and brought down the anger of European governments, but it would also have ensured that the Parliament was taken more seriously and given it the public profile it desperately needs in order to be taken seriously.

'They bottled out and the MEPs have shown themselves to be poodles of their governments,' said Andrew Duff of the Federal Trust, which campaigns to increase the Parliament's powers.

'They should have gone ahead,' (and rejected Mr Santer) said Emil Kirchner, head of the European studies programme at Essex University. 'Parliament had a good case and it has now missed a golden opportunity to assert itself before the other instiutions.'

Others take the view that Parliament acted maturely and sensibly by warning the EU governments this time, thereby averting an unwelcome mid-summer crisis for the German presidency. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, like most German politicians, believes in the European Parliament and wants to see it grow in stature. To have rejected Mr Kohl's protege, Jacques Santer, so soon after the crisis over Mr Dehaene, would have risked alienating one of the institution's key supporters.

It is also clear that the governments that selected Mr Santer went to great lengths to persuade MEPs from their parties to toe the line and support him in yesterday's vote. Another factor is that, unlike British members, most continental MEPs are elected on the basis of single-constituency national lists and tend to be under the thumb of their governments.

'Parliament needs time to settle down and grow in confidence,' said Suzy Symes, head of the European programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. 'To have rejected Santer just because it was unhappy with the selection process without objecting to the man himself would have been too blunt an instrument to use at this stage.'

The Parliament, crippled at birth by national governments fearful that it might become a powerful transnational federal institution, has gradually accumulated powers and is now a formidable institution in the making.

The European Parliament's role is more akin to the President-Congress relationship in the US than to the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe. While it has only a limited role in the complex and lengthy European decision- making process, the Parliament's view can be decisive and the institution can no longer be ignored as a wasteful and expensive talking-shop.