Battle looms over top job in Nato as Danes step in

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THE CONTEST over the top job in Nato may be about to break open again with a new contender entering the field.

The move could signal another damaging battle similar to that over the selection of a successor to Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission. The former Danish foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, is likely to be put forward by Copenhagen as a candidate after the Danish election at the end of the month, according to diplomats and officials in Brussels. Officials from the Danish Foreign Ministry, normally the most open in Europe, refused any comment on Friday on what is a highly sensitive subject.

Willy Claes, the Belgian Foreign Minister, is currently the leading candidate to succeed Manfred Worner, Nato secretary-general until his death last month. Thorvald Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian foreign minister and currently the United Nations mediator for the former Yugoslavia, was the leading candidate, but support for him ebbed away rapidly. Hans van den Broek, a European commissioner and former Dutch foreign minister, another leading candidate, dropped out almost as soon as the race began.

Mr Ellemann-Jensen is a polished performer who may prove more effective at giving Nato a public face than any of the alternatives. His Liberal party is expected to do well in the Danish elections, but he is unlikely to become prime minister in the next coalition. Denmark has asked that no decision be made on a succession to Mr Worner until after the election, and a final choice is not expected until Nato foreign ministers meet at the end of September.

Mr Claes has received the tacit approval of 10 of the 11 European countries which are members of Nato. Norway, which narrowly failed to win the job when Mr Worner was appointed, is not pleased that it seems to have been pipped at the post again, and is particularly irritated that this has happened as a result of an EU stitch-up.

The United States has not finally decided on who it favours for the job, and nor have Canada, Iceland, Turkey, Norway or Denmark, though the latter two favour Mr Stoltenberg. The other 10 states are behind Mr Claes, but it is possible that Germany may shift its ground. The German Chancellor, Hel mut Kohl, is said to have promised Norway that a Norwegian would get the job, and Mr Kohl will be loth to do anything that could upset the Norwegian referendum.

Britain has decided in favour of Mr Claes, but some officials in London say there is unhappiness over the choice because Mr Claes has indicated less than complete support for the Atlanticist line.