Santer's star set to rise over Commission: Compromise candidate set to win presidency as Euro-sceptics turn their attention to the veto in campaign to curb federalism

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The Independent Online
JACQUES SANTER is nobody's first choice to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, yet, barring a surprise or a deadlock at the extraordinary summit called today to resolve the crisis lingering since Corfu, the job is his.

Diplomats have not come forward to praise or bury him. There is only surprise that of all the stars that have shone since Corfu, when John Major vetoed the majority choice of Jean-Luc Dehaene, his has burnt brightest.

The Prime Minister of Luxembourg is not assured of the job. All 12 European Union heads of government must agree he is the best candidate. Their choice will then be ratified by the European Parliament. The largest parliamentary group - the Socialists - say they will support Mr Santer if he is the common choice, although as one member put it, 'There are other candidates we would far rather see; he is weak.'

Pauline Green, who leads the group, warned this week that the Parliament, under the Maastricht treaty, 'has a constitutional right to veto which we will use if necessary'. The Liberals, too, are unhappy with the choice. There is discontent even in the European Peoples' Party, that groups Mr Santer's own Christian Democrats.

But unless there is an alternative candidate, it seems the Prime Minister of Luxembourg will pass muster. His light has flared as other flames were snuffed out for reasons of politics, age, or personal temperament. For form's sake there are other names. Jean-Luc Dehaene is Belgium's nomination and Denmark is backing its candidate, the former prime minister, Poul Schluter.

But if Mr Santer wins, he will be nominated more from a desire to see the post filled, rather than for the gravitas he will bring to the role.

Perhaps this is unfair. At 57 he has been the Prime Minister of a state for over a decade. He has served as a member of the European Parliament, as secretary-general of the Christian Democrat party to which he belongs. He has been involved with government for 31 years, having worked his way through the civil service and then the cabinet office in the 1970s, until in 1989 he led a coalition government with the Socialists.

Mr Santer and his team are credited with drafting the body of the Maastricht treaty, which gave greater scope to the development of inter-governmental co-operation than Luxembourg itself favoured. This indicated that Mr Santer can sell the kind of political compromises that the Brussels Commission depends on to function.

John Major held out against the appointment of a 'Philosopher King', and no one has suggested that Mr Santer is a visionary in the Delors mode. Known at home for his affability and ability to have a good time, the bon viveur is nicknamed in one satirical Luxembourg paper 'Jacques le digestif', or Have- one-for-the-road Jacques.

The fear is that the scratch- and-tickle of Luxembourg politics is no preparation for the cut-and-thrust of the international scene. The Commission that the new president will inherit is an ageing beast. Within Europe its influence is waning, now its major projects, the single market, the Maastricht treaty, the completion of the Gatt talks, the reform of common agricultural policy and enlargement, are completed.

The next phase of European construction begins next year, when the ground is laid for the revision of the Maastricht treaty, that is scheduled for 1996.

The impetus for reforms will come from the member states. Will Jacques Santer be strong enough to counterweight demands from the strongest states - Germany, France, Britain and Italy - and from the powerful Franco-German partnership?

Mr Santer will also inherit a new set of Commissioners in January. New names may include Neil Kinnock from Britain and Edith Cresson from France. They are all experienced politicians and in a power vacuum under Mr Santer's leadership, they may establish their own empires and undermine the Commission's political coherence.