Germany may seize top post in Europe

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THE RACE to succeed Jacques Santer as president of the European Commission took an unexpected twist yesterday with suggestions that Germany may put forward its candidate for the job.

Frenzied media speculation arose after authoritative reports that German and French officials had discussed a bid by Bonn for the Commission presidency during a recent meeting.

The idea that the new, left-of-centre finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, may want the position were played down, although Mr Lafontaine said: "Rumours are always rumours and speculation. In fact, I'm interested in the Pope's job - you should report that."

The former Italian premier Romano Prodi is seen in Brussels as clear favourite to succeed Mr Santer at the end of next year, with the Portuguese prime minister, Antonio Guterres also a possibility.

But asked whether there would be a German bid for the post, a spokesman for the Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, said that the government has "not formed an opinion on that yet". He dismissed the suggestion that Mr Lafontaine planned to move to Brussels as "absurd speculation".

On Wednesday, the respected weekly newspaper Die Zeit said Bonn had made unofficial approaches in Paris to gauge French reactions to a German taking up the post, adding that the approaches were made with the knowledge of the Chancellor, Mr Schroder.

Yesterday a Social Democratic former European Parliament president, Klaus Haensch, said he was promoting Mr Lafontaine as a candidate for the post. "It's Germany's turn to occupy this post," Mr Haensch added.

Traditionally, Germany has been sensitive about pushing for jobs in Europe, because of the historical legacy from the Second World War, and because of its economic dominance of the continent.

Germany's only Commission president, Walter Hallstein, finished his nine- year tenure 31 years ago.

But there is growing pressure for the new left consensus in Europe to be represented at the highest level. France's governing socialists tend to prefer Mr Lafontaine to most Social Democrats in Germany, because his interventionist economic ideas are close to theirs, and because of his knowledge of French.

Some are nostalgic for the more radical, and high-profile presidency of the previous incumbent, Jacques Delors, and believe Mr Lafontaine might fit the bill.

But in Brussels the German minister was seen as an unlikely prospect for Commission president, partly because his current job, at the heart of a new, beefed-up finance ministry, is more powerful. Many see Mr Lafontaine's outspoken brand of politics, which is to the left of the spectrum on EU governments, as ill-suited to the conciliation role often fulfilled by the president.

During the summer Mr Santer dropped hints that he may wish to continue after his term ends in December next year. However that prospect has now been discounted, amid a welter of allegations about fraud and financial irregularities in the commission. Although they relate to a period before his tenure, the Commission has been afflicted by acrimony and low morale and a Court of Auditors report next week is expected to bring more bad publicity to the presidency.