Major is determined to block Dehaene: Prime Minister willing to ruin summit rather than accept Belgian as EU chief

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR threatened to plunge the European Union into a crisis today by using the British veto to block the succession of Jacques Delors by Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, attacked the 'poison' in the EU over the decision, and British officials made it clear that Mr Major would hold out against pressure to drop his rejection of Mr Dehaene's candidacy for president of the EU commission at a reconvened meeting of the EU leaders this morning.

Although Britain was in a 10-2 minority with the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, who is one of the candidates, British officials said the Prime Minister would continue to back Mr Lubbers rather than give in to pressure to support Mr Dahaene. British officials said Mr Major was looking for a new candidate, who is likely to be Peter Sutherland, the Irish Gatt negotiator.

'Mr Dehaene is not the man for the job. In our view (Sir) Leon Brittan (the British EU commissioner) best fits the bill, we are prepared to rally round a consensus for Mr Lubbers but we feel Mr Dehaene is not the candidate who will support the consensus necessary for someone in charge of the community for the next five years,' said a British official.

Mr Major's determination to block Mr Dehaene will be seen as an attempt to show firm leadership at home and appease the right wing Euro-phobes in the Conservative Party, but it will undermine his credibiility as a leader committed to be 'at the heart of Europe'.

Mr Hurd said he had nothing against Mr Dehaene personally, but objected to the way his candidacy had been imposed. Mr Major's decision firmly to reject Mr Dehaene came during the early hours of today after an evening of brinkmanship across the negotiating table. In an emergency meeting, recovened at the insistence of the Germans, the EU leaders voted 10-1-1 in favour Mr Dehaene to succeed Mr Delors.

The EU leaders had been called back to the negotiating table after an 8-3-1 split, with Mr Major alone in promoting Sir Leon. Mr Delors made it clear he did not want the EU summit to decend into chaos.

The European commission's president wanted to force the leaders to resolve the impasse over the two main contenders - Mr Dehaene, who had the support of eight members and Mr Lubbers, who had three votes. Mr Delors's aim in putting them head-to-head was to make one withdraw.

The delegations had begun to break up from the dinner, when they were recalled to the emergency meeting. The plan had been to resume the talks at 10am today to resolve the deadlock.

Officials said it might be impossible to reach a decision during this weekend's summit. 'It looks very difficult, we will need a few weeks to think about it,' said one.

Mr Dehaene now appears to be out of the running, if Mr Major maintains his veto, unless Mr Lubbers decides to pull out of the race. Mr Lubbers's decision could hang on a sensitive bargaining game based on the allocation of a variety of other European jobs up for grabs in the near future. Mr Major is keen to avoid being isolated by Mr Lubbers's withdrawal, which now seems unlikely.

Mr Dehaene was the first choice of Germany and France; Mr Lubbers is thought to have been supported by the Netherlands, Spain and probably Italy which has played a crucial role.

Throughout yesterday, support seemed to have been building for Mr Dehaene, and Mr Major faced the difficult choice of opposing his EU collegues or offering ammunition to the Tory Euro-phobes who have already branded Mr Dehaene as a dangerous federalist.