LEADING ARTICLE: Santer comes to Strasbourg

Click to follow
The Quixotes of the Tory party were up and tilting again yesterday. Don Cash and Sir Sancho Taylor donned their pudding basins and berated John Major for failing to notice that a powerful enemy, Jacques Santer, was laying waste the countryside.

To be fair to the whipless wonders, early press reports of Mr Santer's speech to the European Parliament gave credence to a paranoid interpretation of the incoming European Commission President's intentions. Mr Santer was variously described as rejectingJohn Major's vision of an a la carte Europe, wanting to scrap the British opt-out from the social chapter and pushing hell-for-leather for a single currency.

For once the response from Downing Street was more convincing. Mr Santer had actually endorsed the Majorite notion of a multi-speed Europe and his support for the social charter and the single currency were repetitions of existing policy. Even better, hehad added ideas for enforcing member states' compliance with directives (Britain's record is very good), combatting fraud and making subsidiarity work.

But the fact that the inoffensive Mr Santer had once more failed to offend should not disguise the fact that something very interesting was going on. His speech was designed to win the support of the European Parliament for his nominated Commission and for himself as EU President. The power to veto the Commission as a whole was a largely overlooked provision of the Maastricht treaty and was being exercised for the first time. Many of the 600 MEPs clearly enjoyed their role, subjecting Commission nominees to some rather searching cross-examination, even concluding, in one case, that the putative Commissioner had not mastered her brief.

This is significant because the Strasbourg assembly has long been seen by many as a joke. It was the place where Ian Paisley heckled the Pope, French farmers herded their cows in protest and members, speaking languages unknown to each other, listened with their headphones off. Now the Parliament is using its enhanced powers to subject the work of the Commission and of the Council of Ministers to more effective scrutiny.

This is where the knights of doleful countenance re-enter our tale, for their great achievement has been to draw attention to the yawning gap - the democratic deficit - that exists between the people of Europe and the institutions of the EU. It has been clear for some time that the ability of national parliaments properly to scrutinise the vast mass of Euro-regulation is minimal. Now the coming of age of the European Parliament offers a real chance to address the problem. Mr Santer seems to have understood this, not least by suggesting that MEPs should choose the next EU President. At the 1996 inter-governmental conference, the case for further strengthening the powers of Strasbourg is one that Mr Major (or indeed, Mr Blair) will have to answer.