Leading Article: Strasbourg flexes its new muscles

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The Independent Online
THE European Parliament has fired a powerful warning shot across the bows of the union's 12 heads of government. Never again is a new president of the European Commission likely to be nominated by the member states without proper consultation with the Strasbourg parliament. No less significantly, MEPs have given notice that they intend to exercise their new powers to approve all those nominated to be members of the next Commission.

That remains the case even though in the end they decided by a small majority not to oppose the man chosen as a last resort, the Luxembourg Prime Minister, Jacques Santer. Here was a situation replete with ironies. Assembled MEPs had been freshly elected in a poll that showed widespread popular disaffection with most of the very governments that had plumped for Mr Santer. The latter would not have been considered had John Major not stood out against the man originally approved by his 11 colleagues, the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean- Luc Dehaene.

A jubilant Mr Major called Mr Santer 'the right man in the right place at the right time'. Far from being grateful, Mr Santer criticised British attitudes to Mr Dehaene, and expressed support for integrationist policies that he knew were anathema to Mr Major.

Given that embarrassing outburst, Mr Major might not have been deeply distressed to see Mr Santer being discomfited. Yet it was British Labour MEPs who led the move to have the Luxembourgeois voted down. Their main objection was much the same as Mr Major's to Mr Dehaene, whose candidacy had been stitched up by the French and Germans: that they had not been adequately consulted. There would have been no prospect of the move being successful had not Labour MEPs been grossly disproportionately numerous, thanks to Britain's sole use of a distorting first-past-the-post electoral system.

It is probably as well that it failed. Mr Santer is an unimpressive candidate. But there is no guarantee that yet another meeting of heads of government would have produced anyone significantly better. Rejection would have created much odium in national capitals. The Maastricht treaty requires only that the European Parliament be consulted on the nomination of the European Commission president. It is, however, required to vote on the incoming college of commissioners, including the president, when candidates have been proposed by the 12 governments. That test will probably come in November.

MEPs have made it clear they intend to subject candidates to close scrutiny and questioning, a prospect that will have an effect on governments as they contemplate who to nominate. The near-rejection of Mr Santer has been effective in showing that they mean business. No national candidate unacceptable to a majority of MEPs could be sustained without risking rejection of the Commission as a whole.

Only by testing its new powers will the European Parliament achieve something closer to parity with the Council of Ministers and the Commission, thus reducing the union's democratic deficit. Its members are right to have started that process so soon after being elected.