Dublin dithers over man for top Europe job

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WITHOUT appearing to have lifted a finger, Peter Sutherland, 49, the Irish Director-General of Gatt has become a contender for the most coveted job in European politics, president of the European Commission in Brussels. The move caused consternation in Dublin this week, where the government of Albert Reynolds is gagging at nominating a figure from the Fine Gael opposition party.

Mr Sutherland, who pulled off a triumph in the Gatt negotiations last year, also did Germany and France the great service of averting a threatened falling out over the world trade talks. As a committed free-trader, tempered with a federalist vision of Europe, he could yet emerge as their dream candidate to replace Jacques Delors when he retires at the end of the year.

If Mr Reynolds nominates Mr Sutherland he will alienate powerful figures in his own party. Mr Reynolds believed he had put paid to Mr Sutherland's ambitions by saying rudely that his County Longford election agent (with zero international experience), stood a better chance of becoming Commission president. But once the guffaws had died down, the realisation remained that Ireland was passing up a golden opportunity to secure one of the key positions in world politics.

'It would be viewed as a massive insult to the country if the government passed up the opportunity of securing the presidency just to hold on to a plum job in Brussels, for Ireland's sitting Commissioner,' noted a senior political commentator in Dublin. Mr Sutherland, however, appears to have calculated that the call will eventually come and that Mr Reynolds will be persuaded to nominate him.

If the 12 heads of state reach an impasse over the replacement for Mr Delors when they come together in Corfu at the end of June, Mr Sutherland could find himself drafted.

Germany will play a key role in the selection of the next president and it was significant that in his recent visit to London, Chancellor Helmut Kohl carefully rebutted any suggestion that Germany had decided to go for the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene or the other two declared candidates, the Netherlands Prime minister Ruud Lubbers or Sir Leon Brittan, the external economic affairs commissioner.

On the other hand, Helmut Kohl is known to be an admirer of Mr Sutherland and grateful to him for helping to ensure a German economic recovery by getting the Gatt world trade talks completed virtually without a hitch.

Mr Sutherland has spent the last 12 months saying to those who ask about his ambitions that he wants to spend more time with his Spanish-born wife and his family. To Dublin's annoyance, he turned down the chance of being head of the World Trade Organisation, the sucessor organisation to Gatt.

He finally put his hat in the ring this week for the Commission telling an Irish television crew that had travelled to Geneva that if asked to put himself forward for the job he would give it 'serious consideration'.

Now Mr Lubbers, long considered a hot favourite for the job and who has just lost a general election, is having to activate his campaign and persuade heads of state that his federal vision of Europe is relevant.