EU in crisis: Rift opens on stopgap president

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The Independent Online
A NEW rift has opened up among Europe's leaders on whether to appoint an interim successor to Jacques Santer, as signs of a quick agreement on who should fill the job of European Commission president faded yesterday.

Although several countries - including Britain and Germany - have called for the speedy appointment of a full-time replacement, many believe there is a growing likelihood of an interim Commission headed by a caretaker such as Sir Leon Brittan, the British vice-president of the Commission, or the Belgian commissioner, Karel Van Miert.

One complication is that the new president needs to be approved by the European Parliament. Because elections are due in June, a permanent president would require the support of both the old and the new parliaments, requiring two processes in nine months.

Several countries, including France, now expect an interim solution and Spain wants to keep the existing Commission in place at least until the European elections.

Two serving premiers who have not yet let their names go forward for the top job of president, Wim Kok of the Netherlands and Antonio Guterres of Portugal, are likely to come into the frame, if either think they could get unanimous support of the 15 leaders. If a decision could be delayed until later in the year that would help Mr Guterres because he would not want to leave before Portuguese elections, which are due in the autumn.

Romano Prodi, the former Italian premier, has won early status as favourite but one European diplomat said yesterday: "He is a little obvious, and the obvious candidate usually does not get it." Although he has the backing of the Italian government, he could suffer from not being a member of the socialist group to which 11 of the 15 heads of government belong.

Tony Blair has publicly praised Mr Prodi, with whom he attended a seminar in Washington last year on the Third Way, but this could be tactical. Mr Kok and Mr Guterres might also win British support when the real horsetrading gets under way.

Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of Nato, is a socialist but does not have the support as yet of the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar, who comes from a rival party - Mr Aznar would prefer Mr Guterres with whom he has close relations. Mr Solana could become available after the Nato summit next month. Felipe Gonzalez, the former Spanish prime minister, is unlikely to get Mr Aznar's backing.

Rudolf Scharping, the German Defence Minister, could emerge if Bonn decides to put forward a candidate. And there is even speculation that Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Prime Minister of Belgium whose candidature for the job was blocked in 1994 by the then British prime minister John Major, could re- emerge as a contender.

Germany yesterday ruled out the possibility of deciding on a new president at next week's summit in Berlin. Instead, leaders want negotiations over the Agenda 2000 financial reforms of the EU to have priority.

A further complication revolves around treaty changes. Under the existing Maastricht treaty, the parliament can reject the president, if it chooses, and examine appointments of commissioners. But after 1 May, the Amsterdam treaty comes into force, strengthening the powers of the assembly which will be elected in June.