Bonn determined to make Major pay: France and Germany ready to drop Dehaene but Britain remains stumbling block to reaching a compromise

Click to follow
FRANCE and Germany are set to shift away from their support for Jean-Luc Dehaene as president of the European Commission, despite their continued public backing for him, diplomats in Brussels said yesterday.

But the search for a compromise candidate to fill the job is severely complicated by two apparently contradictory criteria. The first is the new candidate must be acceptable to Britain. The second is the decision must not be seen to reward Britain for blocking Mr Dehaene.

Yesterday France and Germany insisted that there was no reason to withdraw their support for the Belgian Prime Minister, who received the backing of 11 states in Corfu on Saturday but was vetoed by Britain. 'I see no ground at the moment to think about another candidate than Mr Dehaene,' said Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, in Paris, where he met his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, who agreed.

The stance will receive some support from other countries. But few diplomats in Brussels believe Mr Dehaene's candidacy can remain, with Britain adamant that it will not accept it.

'It's obvious that Dehaene is not going to work, but one can't say that,' said a diplomat representing a country that backed the Belgian. 'We can't exclude another candidate; it will have to happen,' said another.

The German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, will need time to accept that his favoured candidate has failed, said a third diplomat. In addition, Mr Dehaene's candidacy has not been withdrawn. Yesterday, he was distinctly ambiguous about his future. He would not push his candidacy and would not campaign, he said, but he remained acandidate. 'I therefore remain available if a consensus can be reached on my name,' he added.

The Greek government continues to hold the EU chair, but cedes it this week to Germany, which will have to do the leg work in deciding who is acceptable. Several diplomats, and British officials, insisted that this time there had to be a genuine consultation, rather than a sense that a candidate was being imposed from Bonn and Paris.

Mr Kinkel will visit Britain on Thursday to discuss the issue as part of his trip to prepare for Germany's chairmanship of the EU. He is thought to have been less than happy with the way the Chancellor made his decision in favour of Mr Dehaene. And tomorrow, Antonio Martino, the Italian Foreign Minister, is also in London for a long-scheduled visit. Italy, like Britain, was unhappy with the way Germany and France appeared to bulldoze the EU into choosing Mr Dehaene.

The Germans - and most other delegations - are intent on seeing a deal stitched up before the projected emergency summit in Brussels on 15 July. They do not want to risk another confrontation. Hence they will use two forthcoming international jamborees. The Naples meeting of the heads of government of the Group of Seven Industrialised nations will bring together France, Germany, Italy and Britain, the EU's big four. A gathering of the contact group will also provide an opportunity for discussions between France, Germany and Britain.

Given the anger in Bonn, Paris and Brussels over Mr Major's veto, it is clear that these countries will be unhappy with a candidate who seems to go too far in Mr Major's direction. 'We want a candidate that will cause as many problems for Major as possible,' said one official. But Germany does not want a row as it takes over the EU chair, particularly as it has already attracted criticism. And Britain has to agree to allow a decision.

British officials refused to discuss names. 'It would be crazy to put the Union Jack over any candidate,' said one. 'The dust has to settle a little.' But he emphasised: 'The ball is in the Germans' court.'

Diplomats said yesterday that, because of all these factors, it was much too early to speculate on who might succeed Mr Delors. This did not stop them from doing so, however.

Topping the list of alternative candidates is Peter Sutherland, the Gatt chief and a former EU commissioner for competition. Because he is so closely linked to Britain, he is handicapped, diplomats said, and his own government will not put him forward. But he is also favoured by Italy and Spain. If they proposed him, said one diplomat, it would carry a lot of weight. Both were backers of Ruud Lubbers.