Britain rules Verhofstadt out of top Europe job

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The Independent Online

The search for a new president of the European Commission was plunged into disarray last night as Britain made clear it will not support the front-runner, Belgium's premier, Guy Verhofstadt.

The search for a new president of the European Commission was plunged into disarray last night as Britain made clear it will not support the front-runner, Belgium's premier, Guy Verhofstadt.

After weeks of negotiation and conflicting signals from Downing Street, the Government finally made public its opposition to Mr Verhofstadt - who was a leading opponent of the war in Iraq. It has now become more likely that a decision on who should succeed Romano Prodi will be postponed.

But France and Germany are still backing Mr Verhofstadt, and could provoke an acrimonious showdown if they force the issue to a vote at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, starting today.

Asked about Mr Verhofstadt's candidature, a senior British official said: "If we were asked if we could support him, we would say we couldn't."

The Belgian Prime Minister is likely to be opposed by several other leaders, including the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Even if voted through in the teeth of British opposition, he would encounter problems from the European Parliament where centre-right MEPs are threatening to exercise their right to veto him.

The alternative would be a delay of several weeks, which would give time for an alternative candidate to emerge, with most speculation centring on Luxembourg's premier, Jean-Claude Juncker.

He is believed by many to be the real, but undeclared, Franco-German candidate. Surprisingly, Whitehall was making it clear yesterday that it had fewer objections to Mr Juncker than to Mr Verhofstadt.

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