BY tapping Luxembourg Prime Minister Jacques Santer to become the next head of the European Union's bureaucracy, European leaders selected a man who met all the crucial criteria, but who was no one's first choice.
Government heads from the 12 EU member states agreed on Mr. Santer's candidacy at a special meeting on July 15 in Brussels. The decision awaits formal approval by the European Parliament this week. Santer will replace Jacques Delors, who during a 10-year tenure at the helm of the European Commission provided forceful leadership that greatly expanded the influence of the 15,000-strong Brussels-based bureaucracy in EU affairs.
Virtually every European leader admitted from the start that finding a replacement who would be as strong and effective an advocate for European integration as Mr. Delors was next to impossible.
But some politicians and experts worry Santer's selection as head of the Commission represents the lowest common denominator in EU consensusmaking. That, they add, will make it difficult for Santer to provide strong guidance at a time when the EU is going through a critical stage in its development.
A special conference
During Santer's term, EU members will hold a special conference in 1996 to establish the framework in which the EU will function in the next century. At present, several influential members have sharply contrasting visions of the EU's future. The British, in particular, favor a looser EU configuration than do the French and Germans.
Differences of opinion extend along two fault lines: How closely integrated should the Union become, and how far should it expand. In EU-speak, it is known as deepening and widening.
The ability of the commission head to help smooth over the differences could prove pivotal if the EU is to achieve the aims outlined in the Maastricht Treaty on European Union. The pact envisions a federal Europe united by a common currency and conducting a single foreign policy.
Though he has led Luxembourg for 10 years, Santer has not developed a high-profile as a European statesman. In a recent newspaper interview in the Luxembourger Wort, he spoke against a super-centralized ``Napoleonic Europe.'' He also said he would concentrate on strengthening the EU's single market, enlargement, and monetary union, and he stressed the need for the EU's opening to the global market. He said that though he never sought the post, he would be up to the challenge. ``Just because a person comes from a small country doesn't mean he can't be a big leader.''
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, one of the biggest boosters of the Maastricht vision of Europe, on Friday echoed that feeling. ``We are convinced that Jacques Santer is the right man at the right time,'' Mr. Kohl said. Germany currently holds the rotating post of the EU presidency.
Despite Kohl's endorsement, Santer was not Germany's preferred candidate. That was Belgian Premier Jean-Luc Dehaene. But Mr. Dehaene's candidacy was torpedoed by British Premier John Major's veto during the EU summit in Corfu, Greece, in late June. Mr. Major said Dehaene was too integrationist and protectionist for Britain's taste.
Dehaene's rejection sparked a frantic two-week search. In the end, Santer's credentials as a free-trade advocate from a small Francophone nation satisfied both the British and the French. Other nations were pleased that a Christian Democrat such as Santer would be following the French socialist Delors.
For Germany, there may be disappointment at the failed candidacy of Deheane, a proven EU integrationist. But Bonn needed a decision on a new commission head by Friday to avoid political disaster. Without a EU Commission. head, Germany would have stood little chance of realizing few, if any, of the proposals on its agenda during its six-month EU presidency. Even as it stands now, it will have a tough time implementing its proposals.
For example, Britain appears firmly opposed to the German desire of expanding labor rights - including the extension of benefits enjoyed by full-time workers to include part-timers - to all EU nations. In addition, poorer EU nations, such as Greece and Portugal, are lukewarm on the German push to bring the democratizing Central European countries into the EU. Such topics will dominate the next EU summit in Germany in December.
For the EU as a whole, the difficulty over naming Delors' replacement underscores a need to change the rules that allow one nation to block important EU decisions, Dehaene says.
``It's a good thing we have consensus, otherwise we would have an institutional crisis in Europe,'' he told British television. ``I find it a bad thing that in Corfu we had a veto. That's bad for Europe.''
Meanwhile, one diplomatic observer warned that EU leaders were losing sight of the Union's original purpose. ``All the power-brokering is obscuring the basic ideas of the EU,'' said Iceland's Foreign Minister Jon Baldvin Hannibalsson recently in Bonn. He stressed that the EU was not ``about market access,'' but about ensuring security on a continent devastated by two wars in this century.