“Never read an official document” was the advice offered to Jacques Santer on his unexpected departure to Brussels as president of the European Commission. The paperwork tip came from Nicholas Elam, Britain’s ambassador in Luxembourg-not exactly a Foreign Office hardship post. Six months on, “Champagne Jacques” shows few signs of breaking the habits of a lifetime.
Stories abound of him nodding off in meetings, or drifting hopelessly as his colleagues navigate their way around Spanish fishing rights off Morocco and rum quotas in the Caribbean. General verdict: nice guy, just not up to the job.
Santer’s trade-mark is an inane grin and a commendable deference to everyone down to the station-master at Luxembourg’s Gare Centrale. But he’s a much shrewder operator than most people think. He has made a career out of people underestimating him.
In 1985, as Luxembourg’s prime minister, he persuaded Margaret Thatcher to agree to more majority voting in return for the free movement of capital in Europe. The compromise launched the 1992 single European market-and placed a time bomb under the Tory party. Mrs T failed to grasp how much she had given away to the Euro-builders; she lamented as much in her memoirs. Santer, lest we forget, still has a job-and a future in public life.
He has powerful allies, too: chiefly among fellow Christian Democrats in Europe. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been a pal for more than 20 years. It is still the case that not much is decided in Brussels before a protective call to Bonn-or Frankfurt.
Sometimes, the German route is unashamedly direct. Hans Tietmeyer, the towering head of the Bundesbank, is a fierce critic of the planned single currency. He loves using his physical presence and the Deutsche Mark’s power to bludgeon opponents into submission. Santer ducked a confrontation and invited Tietmeyer to a two-and-a-half-hour lunch in Brussels, during which the Buba chief was given a blank cheque to edit the Commission draft on Emu. You can’t build monetary union against the will of 80 million Germans, shrugs a Santer aide.
Much of the criticism of Santer is nostalgia-driven: false memories of a golden age when visions of a United States of Europe stood unchallenged. In the late 1980s, the high point of the Delors era, everything seemed possible: a single market, a single currency, even a common European army. Then the Wall came down, and the reality set in…