Battle lines drawn over rival visions of Europe

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The Independent Online
THE battle to succeed Jacques Delors came down yesterday to a struggle between two competing visions of Europe.

Throughout the day, and late into the evening, there was rumour and counter-rumour, the stuff of summits. There were almost hourly shifts in support for the three candidates: the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, his Dutch counterpart, Ruud Lubbers, and Britain's EU Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan.

Late last night, the 12 EU heads of government had failed to resolve their differences and were called back to an unscheduled after-dinner bargaining session.

Beneath the political manoeuvring - there lay a serious philosophical dilemma - what kind of Europe should the new EU Commission President oversee?

France and Germany, the partnership that drives Europe, have restated their intention to press ahead with far-reaching reforms to strengthen the Union's existing political structures. Several member states, particularly Britain, are wary of such reforms, prefering a more flexible, less centralised Europe. Each camp is anxious to see a Commission President who mirrors their vision of the future.

Sir Leon Brittan seems handicapped by nationality. The front- runners, Mr Dehaene and Mr Lubbers, as Christian Democrats from small countries in northern Europe, have more in common than their supporters admit.

Mr Dehaene, branded a federalist, certainly favours greater European centralisation. But he has also overseen the 'federalisation' of his own country, cascading powers to the regions in a triumph for the notion of subsidiarity (ie decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate political level). He has done more to deregulate a highly unionised and comparatively planned Belgian economy than any of his predecessors.

The battle is the result of German pressure in favour of the Belgian - pressure resented by most other countries who object to the notion that what Germany says must go. The issue has dominated the discussions in Corfu, overshadowing more mundane matters. 'There are important decisions being made at this summit, but the succession is all anyone really cares about,' admitted a senior EU official.

The new Italian government has complicated the traditional EU alliances by backing the British view of a less regulated Europe. The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said a decision on the new Commission head was 'desirable' but would be difficult to achieve.

It was not until dinner that the fight to succeed Jacques Delors broke into open battle. First, the heads of government signed a ground-breaking trade deal with Russia and formally welcomed Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway to the EU - pending referendums in the last three. Then the heads of government concentrated on less divisive issues such as the need to press ahead with transport projects designed to knit the continent together and the need to work together to combat organised crime.

But the Delors succession ran as an undercurrent thorough all discussions. Mr Delors has championed an activist, interventionist stance by the Commission, while maintaining a strong role for the private sector. Though he has supported attempts to reform Europe's labour markets, his successor will be faced with starker choices over union legislation.

The next Commission President will also play a crucial role in the 1996 intergovernmental conference on reforming the EU's treaties, a re-run of the contentious Maastricht negotiations. With French and German proposals likely to emerge by the end of the year, Britain could find itself once more facing calls for greater integration. Germany is eager to press ahead and pull the Central and Eastern European countries into the EU. But France is insisting that before this can happen, the nettle of institutional reform (for which read stronger central institutions) must be grasped.

(Photograph omitted)