MPs rally to Major after his EU battle

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR is expected to secure a strong demonstration of Conservative support in the Commons today after a renewed pledge that the Government would not reverse its veto on the appointment of Belgium's Prime Minister, Jean- Luc Dehaene, as President of the European Commission.

As Mr Major's Eurosceptic critics queued up alongside senior party stalwarts to praise his use of the veto at the European Union's Corfu summit, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said explicitly that Britain would not yield to the expected intense pressure over the next fortnight to change its mind. 'We will not accept Mr Dehaene,' Mr Hurd said.

Although he expressed strong optimism that an acceptable candidate would emerge, the rift between Britain and its EU partners appeared as wide as ever yesterday. Germany, which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council this week, said it was standing by Mr Dehaene. Bonn said it saw no reason to seek a compromise candidate before EU leaders meet again for an emergency summit in Brussels on 15 July.

Despite deep unease among some pro-European Conservatives at Britain's isolation on the issue, and private warnings from the Tory right that Mr Major must not accept another federalist as an alternative, the Prime Minister will make his statement on the Corfu summit this afternoon with his party standing strengthened - at least temporarily.

Elsewhere in the EU, blame for the Corfu debacle is not being heaped entirely on Britain. There was much bitterness about the inflexible line adopted by the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and France's President, Francois Mitterrand. Eleven countries ultimately voted against Britain, but it took a lot of arm-twisting by France and Germany to achieve that result.

It remains unclear whether the other countries will now force Germany and France to take a more conciliatory view. After the summit, the Italian President, Silvio Berlusconi, said Mr Dehaene was 'finished' and new candidates were needed. But Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, in an interview to be published in Bild today, will increase the stakes by insisting: 'There is no reason to bring compromise candidates into the discussion.'

The chances of one alternative, Peter Sutherland, of Ireland, appeared to be fading. Mr Sutherland, head of the Gatt secretariat, is seen as a surrogate British candidate; Germany and France are expected to oppose him on these grounds alone. Other possibilities include two Belgians, a former prime minister, Wilfried Martens, and a former EU Commission vice-president, Etienne Davignon.

Mr Dehaene adopted a philosophical approach in an interview with Belgian television yesterday. He said that he understood the political pressures on Mr Major at home. 'On a personal level, I have no problem with John Major. I am not blind to his problems in Great Britain. I even have some pity for him.'

Mr Hurd told BBC Television's Breakfast with Frost: 'You really do need to have somebody who is generally acceptable and not somebody who is pushed through in this way. We took that view and the difference between us and others was we stuck to it. . . Now we have to find somebody who is acceptable to everybody. It will not be easy, but we can do it.'

Mr Hurd said there had been a strong feeling that the French and German handling of the issue had taken for granted not only Britain but also by Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, whose candidate Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, had been the runner-up.

Tony Blair, favourite for the Labour leadership, warned: 'The key question for Mr Major is whether he is ever going to be able to get his way on anything in Europe or whether he has not isolated this country so seriously that he has diminished our influence.'

James Cran, a leading Tory critic of Europe, told Radio 4's The World This Weekend: 'What he has done is listen to his troops, most of whom will applaud to the rafters what he has done this weekend.'

But one pro-European Tory MP said: 'This was hardly the way to prove that all Europe is moving Britain's way.' He added that the rupture with Mr Kohl could cost Mr Major dear: 'It was the Germans who helped us at Maastricht: would they do that again?'

Leading article, letters, page 13