Britain tolls division bell: The Dehaene fiasco at the Corfu summit has repercussions for the shape of Europe to come

AS THE limousines swept through the old fortress of Corfu in blazing sunshine, it seemed an old story was once more playing itself out. One against eleven; a failure of consensus; and the British explaining once more to their European partners why they could not, would not, should not go along.

The failure to find a successor for Jacques Delors has exposed the papered-over political divisions that split the European Union and called into question yet again Britain's claim to be at the heart of Europe.

However, the British argument that their objection is not to the man - the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene - but with the manner of his choosing does have broad support. The bizarre drama that has unfolded in a night and day of Byzantine intrigue will have strong repercussions.

Ruud Lubbers, the Netherlands premier, who fitted the form guide as a Christian Democrat leader of a small country, had for long been the heir-apparent to French Socialist Delors. It was late in the game that the Germans, chiefly for their own national reasons, started to press for Mr Dehaene. In the process they won France over to their way of thinking. Such railroading on the part of the Franco-German alliance, the dominant EU partnership, has not only angered the UK: the Netherlands and Belgium are obviously upset, Mr Lubbers is especially bitter, but Denmark, Italy and Spain are not happy either.

Most surprising is the political mismanagement of the decision-making process which has now driven the EU to the brink of a fresh crisis. 'It was all so unnecessary. Surely this could have been better mapped out in private to avoid the public impression of everyone at each other's throats,' said a senior official yesterday.

The Greeks, who have had the chair of the EU for the past six months, bear some responsibility for this. They have failed to broker a deal, and even three weeks ago British officials were privately confiding that they expected deadlock. 'The hairs have not been smoothed,' said one diplomat.

But the manner in which Mr Dehaene's candidacy was advanced also left a sour taste. One of the more lasting effects of this fiasco may be the fracturing of the hegemony of France and Germany over the EU. German officials, in the weeks leading up to the summit, were often critical in private of the way the move was carried out. It was 'counterproductive', 'badly handled', 'sent the wrong signals', said officials in Bonn and Brussels.

They knew that not just Mr Lubbers and the Dutch, but other countries as well, had been offended to see their choice relegated. 'Very few of you would have been able to find a delegation yesterday who believed this matter was well- handled,' Douglas Hurd said yesterday.

Joachim Bitterlich, Helmut Kohl's adviser on foreign affairs, played a key role both in the choice of Mr Dehaene and in the background briefings used to spread the idea that this was the man upon whom the mantle of glory would fall. Mr Bitterlich is close to France, and dedicated to the idea of Franco-German partnership. Now the Chancellor will have to return to Germany with his plans in tatters, and the blame may spread beyond John Major.

But if the British Government objected to the process, it was slow to say so in public and never made explicit its objection to the principle of Mr Dehaene's candidature. Mr Major said yesterday that 'on a number of occasions' he had told the Belgian government that he could not accept Mr Dehaene, but this was never evident. Instead the press made most of the running, describing as an arch-federalist the man known at home for his ability to adapt his political thinking to any situation and reviled in some quarters for his lack of commitment to any integrationist European ideal.

The prejudice fed the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, limiting the Government's room to denounce the Belgian Prime Minister in anything but the strongest terms. Yesterday Mr Major said Mr Dehaene was an advocate of interventionism, of big government, and justified his choice on public policy grounds. It is the first time these doubts have surfaced.

Mr Major must always have known that Sir Leon Brittan, his preferred candidate, had no chance. Sir Leon, although well-qualified, suffered from his association with a country that has so often been in tight corners surrounded by freshly painted floor. But this time Mr Major had been confident that opposition to Mr Dehaene's candidacy was sufficiently strong for the UK not to be isolated. In the event this support melted away. Italy and Spain switched their votes in the second round from Mr Lubbers to Mr Dehaene, in the interests of a speedy decision.

It was one of the most spectacular fiascos in the history of an organisation that is getting used to the smell of bad blood. The debacle, now to be resolved by the Germans, who take over the EU presidency from the Greeks on 1 July and have proposed a special summit on 15 July to resolve the impasse, has laid bare the divisions over Europe's future construction.

'There are two perceptions of Europe,' the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said before the deadlock. 'One is of an integrated Europe with strict rules, the other of an economic and security area with looser regulations. Mr Dehaene and Mr Lubbers each represent one of these perceptions, that is why the choice is difficult.'

Yet this does not represent the emergence of a new, alternative power centre in the EU, but the fragmentation of what was there before. The Netherlands is furious with Germany, but the Benelux alliance, the other key EU grouping, has not held together either.

In withdrawing his own candidature, Mr Lubbers said nothing of Mr Dehaene, but talked of the need for new candidates to emerge. The strength of the Franco-German alliance has enraged smaller countries, such as Denmark and Portugal. Italy, whose new government Britain had hoped would prove an important Euro-ally, has proved unreliable. Britain again appears at serious odds with the rest of the Union. None of this bodes well for the forthcoming debate on revision of the Maastricht treaty.

The search for a solution will force either Britain or Germany, both backed into a political corner, to give up positions that are strongly held. It will be difficult to find a third candidate acceptable to all in time for the new session of the European Parliament in late July, which now has the power to endorse the new Commission.

The Irish Gatt chief, Peter Sutherland, would be a popular choice with Britain, France and most small countries. But he does not yet have the backing of his own government and has never held any elected or political office. The Irish government will not push him, because he is in the wrong party; even yesterday, as his name echoed through the corridors, Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, insisted: 'He has not been ruled in. There is no substance in stories that there is support for Sutherland.'

Fresh Belgian candidates, perhaps desirable to help scotch the idea that Europe has something against the country, are thin on the ground. Etienne Davignon, president of Societe Generale, the country's principal bank, was a candidate for the Commission presidency in 1984, but many think his time is now past. The Economics Minister, Philippe Maystadt, is little known. No other names have as yet been thrown into the ring.

The Greeks yesterday suggested Mr Delors be asked to extend his mandate for a further year, which would make it impossible for him to return to Paris to fight the French presidential elections next year. He has, in any case, always said he does not want to preside over a commission of 21 members. It is not the legacy this dedicated European hoped to bequeath; rupture, fragmentation, uncertainty, apparently continuing a three-year run of bad luck.

(Photograph omitted)

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