Brussels battle bodes ill for Brittan

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The struggle for power within the new European Commission that takes office next year exploded yesterday with the surprise announcement that the Netherlands will be sending its Foreign Minister, Hans van den Broek, to replace Frans Andriessen as a Commissioner.

Mr Andriessen, the longest-serving of the 17 Commissioners, holds the all- powerful External Affairs portfolio. This includes EC relations with eastern Europe, enlargement and liaising with member states on foreign policy action, as well as trade negotiations (such as Gatt).

His resignation will open a battle for the Commission's richest political prize. Foreign affairs is probably the most high-profile portfolio because the Commission's chief political task will be to steer the enlargement negotiations and help governments develop an embryonic common foreign and defence policy.

It is for governments to nominate their appointees, but for Jacques Delors, the Commission President, to distribute the portfolios. He is not obliged to give Mr Andriessen's job to Mr van den Broek and he knows Sir Leon Brittan, the UK's senior Commissioner, and Joao Deus de Pinheiro, Portugal's Commissioner-to-be, would both like it.

But Mr van den Broek is a political heavyweight. One of his country's most popular ministers, he has been Foreign Minister for 10 years, was a principal architect of the Maastricht treaty and a key player in EC attempts to broker peace in Yugoslavia. He will be replaced by a human rights lawyer, Pieter Kooijmans, and, it was suggested by EC sources yesterday, would have been unlikely to have accepted the Brussels appointment unless he had already been guaranteed a senior post. This could bode ill for Sir Leon. The portfolios will be formally announced next week.

More confusing still is how the appointment of Mr van den Broek will affect the chances of the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, succeeding Mr Delors in 1995. Commissioners are appointed in proportion to population: Spain, Italy, Germany, Britain and France have two each, the others one.

The Maastricht treaty provides for the European Parliament and the Commission to be nominated for five years. In the interests of greater democratic oversight, the Parliament will approve the appointment of the Commission, but none of this will take effect for two years, by which time the treaty should have been ratified by the Twelve.

The 1993-1995 Commission is thus a lame duck. Since there can only be one Dutch representative, it is not clear whether Mr van den Broek intends only to do the job for two years, or whether Mr Lubbers now has doubts about becoming President. His candidacy has the public support of Mr Delors, Germany and several other member states, but the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, has also been suggested.

Mr Delors is anxious to repair the reputation of Brussels bureaucrats by streamlining the Commission and making it more responsive to public criticism. His senior advisers have been looking at ways to reform the system. The most likely of these will be to divide the unwieldy external affairs portfolio, devolving external trade and the enlargement negotiations. Such a solution may yet make it possible to please everybody who would like the dossier. But with 17 Commissioners to satisfy, not all will get the job they want. It is the task of Mr Delors to fit the political jigsaw together without alienating his colleagues.