Europe's new man airbrushed into history: Unknown Santer gets top billing

SOME are born great, some become great and some have greatness thrust upon them. Into the last category fell Jacques Santer on Friday evening.

Mr Santer, a genial 57- year-old lawyer and politician, never asked for the job of President of the European Commission. Britain vetoed Jean- Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, at the Corfu summit. That left the German government, which took over the chairmanship of the European Union, with a king-size problem: how to replace Jacques Delors swiftly, without appearing to cave in to Britain. Virtually every name in Europe was canvassed, and discarded; Mr Santer was the last man left in the balloon.

During the week, efforts began in London to prove what a splendid chap the Prime Minister of Luxembourg was. By Friday, ministers were ready with a paean of praise to the new commission president, singling out his unique and hitherto under-regarded contribution to European history. Who presided over the European Single Act, the framework for creation of the single market? Why, Jacques Santer. Who was there when the European Monetary System was set up? Step forward the man from Wasserbillig. Who put in all the good bits of the Maastricht treaty? You guessed it. Mr Santer had been airbrushed into history.

Mr Santer has been, it is generally agreed, an excellent prime minister. As well as Letzeburgish, he speaks fluent German, French and English. There is room for doubt, however, over Mr Santer's ability to fight his corner, and over his experience in international diplomacy. He is a compromiser and a negotiator, one who smoothes out rather than toughing out.

In the European Commission, often a political rough- house, he may find himself on the losing side. And in relations with member states, he may not have sufficient clout to get his way, something that Britain is obviously very keen on. Since governing Luxembourg is not a taxing occupation, he tends to knock off at six or so for a Scotch, before going to a party or a concert, in stark contrast to the workaholic Mr Delors.

He is a convinced European, like most of his compatriots, partly for historical reasons. The history of his country has lain largely outside its own borders, as Mr Santer pointed out on Friday. The country was under occupation from the 15th century until 1815, and again in both world wars. Its high point was when the Luxembourg dynasty ruled the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century, giving way to the Habsburgs.

There is an interesting historical parallel, given the fuss over Mr Santer. The choice of Charles IV of Luxembourg as emperor caused such a dispute that he set out to create new rules. In 1356 a constitution for the empire was created for the first time, a historical model that Britain would doubtless not like to see repeated.

But Denys Hay, a historian of the period, points out: 'The conditions were gradually created within which strong government could emerge at a level below the empire'. This made it an early example of subsidiarity; the result was the decline of the empire, but also the rise of the Germany of princes. Charles shifted his capital east, to Prague.

Mr Santer gets on very well with Helmut Kohl, the top German prince de nos jours, and rather less well with Francois Mitterrand, the French President. ('Another plus,' said a British official on Friday.) He has taken an active interest in central and eastern Europe, in particular in Romania, where a small Letzeburgish-speaking minority still exists.

His good relationship with Mr Kohl, his experience as prime minister of a small country and his political inclinations all cast great doubt on Britain's claim that Mr Santer will prove to be very different from Mr Dehaene when it comes to deciding Europe's future.