STRASBOURG, FRANCE — FIFTEEN years after its members first began to be directly elected, the European Parliament is showing it has teeth.
At its first session after June's elections, the European Union's 521-member legislature came within 22 votes of rejecting the 12 European Union governments' unanimous nomination for the key post of President of the European Commission.
Jacques Santer, prime minister of Luxembourg, squeaked through in voting to become the EU's top civil servant and successor to France's Jacques Delors - but only after a savage verbal attack on his candidacy by the Parliament's socialist group, backed by liberals, a scattering of Greens, and rebel conservatives.
But Mr. Santer, who was strongly supported by Germany and France, has not heard the last of a Parliament whose powers have been considerably increased by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European integration.
Klaus Hansch, the assembly's newly elected socialist president, intends to recall Santer this fall for a policy grilling modeled on nomination hearings by United States congressional committees. The 18 commissioners named by the 12 governments to administer the EU will get the same treatment, he says.
It will be the first time the world's only internationally elected Parliament has asserted itself in this way.
Mr. Hansch's advisers say that any nominee failing to meet with the Parliament's approval will lack the authority to hold office.
An important trigger for the parliamentarians' awakened determination was the way the European Council went about trying to find a successor to Mr. Delors, who has been Commission president for 10 years.
After British Prime Minister John Major vetoed the Franco-German nomination of Belgian Premier Jean-Luc Dehaene at the EU's June summit in Corfu, Greece, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl persuaded the European Council to name Santer for the post. No effort was made to consult the European Parliament, which unlike the Commission is a directly elected assembly.
Under the Treaty of Rome, the EU is supposed to be run by the Council of Ministers, made up of the 12 governments, the Brussels-based European Commission, and the European Parliament. Until now, however, the Parliament has been what William Wallace, head of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University, calls the EU's ``weakest element.''
For many years the Council has decided EU policy, the Commission has executed it, and the Parliament has given its approval.
The Maastricht Treaty, however, gave the Parliament powers to vote on nominations for members of the European Commission, and to approve treaties negotiated by the EU.
The June elections produced a majority of new members, eager to use the powers that Maastricht has given them - and to press for more.
John Palmer of the London-based Guardian newspaper, who has followed European politics for 30 years, says that at long last ``the Parliament is showing not only that it possesses power, but is willing to use it.''
THAT is Hansch's view too.
A German Social Democrat born in Silesia and first elected to the Parliament in 1979, he says the key to the EU's future lies in ``effective parliamentary democracy.''
After being chosen as the Parliament's president by 365 votes to 87, Hansch warned the EU's ``Brussels bureaucracy'' and the Council of Ministers that they will no longer be able to dictate policy.
``We want a new balance struck between the Council, the Commission and ourselves,'' Hansch insists.
Meeting in Strasbourg June 19-22, the newly elected European Parliament appeared to stun Santer with the vehemence of the debate his nomination provoked.
Pauline Green, British leader of the socialists - the Parliament's largest political group - said Santer was a ``good European,'' but the way he had been nominated was ``a disgrace.''
Ms. Green called on the Parliament to block Santer's nomination. Only a solid group of German and French conservatives, supported by Spanish socialists who broke away from Green's group, succeeded in pushing the nomination through.
Green, an ex-policewoman who promises to be a dominant figure at the Parliament's monthly sessions, says European public opinion polls in the last two years have shown a widespread belief that the EU suffers from a ``democratic deficit.''
She thinks EU affairs should be made ``more transparent and more relevant to the citizens of Europe.''
The obvious way to do that, she believes, is ``to enhance the Parliament's powers.''
So far the legislature has not exercised fully two of its key powers. It can dismiss the entire European Commission if it so decides. It also has the right to reject the EU's annual budget. EU parliamentarians call this power the ``H-weapon,'' since using it would bring profound crisis to the EU.