Bandwagon starts to roll for Peter 'Suds' Sutherland

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KLAUS KINKEL, the German Foreign Minister, travels to Dublin on Thursday, the beginning of a desperate search for a compromise candidate to become president of the European Commission following the rancorous summit in Corfu.

Mr Kinkel's visit comes amid intense speculation that he intends to sound out Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, on the possibility that he will do the politically unpalatable and nominate the Irish head of the Gatt world trade talks Peter 'Suds' Sutherland for the job. The visit is expected to be devoted exclusively to the headhunt for a candidate to fill one of the most important jobs in world politics.

Mr Sutherland seems eminently qualified to do the job and there is a large bandwagon of support building for him among officials and in the Irish and British media, but Mr Reynolds has held his name back for the narrowest of reasons, political patronage. Mr Sutherland has not been nominated because he is from the opposition Fine Gael party and there is only one slot on the Commission for an Irish representative. That has already been reserved for the sitting Irish commissioner, Padraig Flynn.

Despite these difficulties, Mr Sutherland has the advantage of commanding the respect of the German government and of Chancellor Helmut Kohl in particular. After taking over the Gatt job a year ago, at a time when the talks looked doomed to failure, Mr Sutherland managed to pull off an agreement thereby helping to ensure that the German economy would pull out of the steepest recession in decades.

France's attitude to his candidacy may be more important, however, and the fact that he has been championed in the British media could prove a stumbling block. Mr Sutherland's belief in free trade at all costs runs against the political orthodoxy in France.

But despite being demonised in the French press during the Gatt talks, Mr Sutherland was an important factor in winning concessions for France.

'More than anything else it is the French attitude towards Sutherland that will determine whether he can become the next President of the Commission,' said a senior Irish commentator yesterday.

Both Spain and Italy, two countries that were annoyed by the Franco-German attempt to bulldoze their candidate Jean-Luc Dehaene through, have also been in touch with Ireland, indicating that they would consider supporting Mr Sutherland.

If support builds for his candidacy in European capitals, Dublin may extract a price for putting his name forward. What they could be was hinted at by the fact that Mr Reynolds took the precaution of studying EU treaties and regulations before Corfu to see whether a second commissioner could be appointed by Ireland. That would be a political plumb indeed.