Candidates line up for the EU's top job

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JUST three weeks before the European Union summit, it is still unclear who will succeed Jacques Delors as President of the Commission. It is possible that a decision may have to be taken afterwards, perhaps as late as September.

Ruud Lubbers, the outgoing Dutch Premier, is favoured by some countries, Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, by others. Sir Leon Brittan, the British commissioner, is hoping to emerge as a late consensus candidate; so is Peter Sutherland, currently head of the international trade body, Gatt. Yet another candidate may emerge - one name mentioned by diplomats yesterday is Etienne Davignon, a former Belgian commissioner.

It will clearly not be an easy task for all 12 member states to agree on Mr Delors' successor at the meeting of heads of government in Corfu on 23-24 June. 'It is possible that we will not decide,' a senior diplomat said yesterday. 'Better to postpone a decision than to have an argument.'

France is backing Mr Dehaene, as is Germany, though Chancellor Helmut Kohl has not finally made up his mind. The Netherlands supports Mr Lubbers, while Britain backs Sir Leon. Though everyone believes the issue should be resolved as soon as possible, nobody wants to make a hasty decision. There is also a possibility that another candidate may emerge between now and September who could break the deadlock.

The Belgian Prime Minister, though moderate in continental terms on integration, might be difficult for Britain to accept as he has been painted in the British press as a committed federalist (and a Socialist, which he is not). Mr Lubbers has long been tipped for the top post, but Germany and France are cool towards him. Apart from the Netherlands, he seems to have support from Spain.

Sir Leon Brittan, former Conservative cabinet minister, is universally agreed to have all the neccessary skills, but he is British and Britain last held the post only 10 years ago with Lord Jenkins. Sir Leon is also suspected by some of not being European enough. He may parley his candidature into increased powers, perhaps as vice-president in charge of all foreign policy issues. Currently he runs only external economic affairs, with political affairs run from a separate part of the bureaucracy and by another commissioner, Hans van den Broek.

Peter Sutherland, the former Irish Commissioner, was galvanised into declaring that he was available after attacks from the Irish government. His candidacy relies on a deadlock persisting, and the need to find a consensus figure. He is favoured by many inside the EU Commission, but they do not get a say in the matter.

Few countries will declare their hands until the last minute, since everyone wants to appear to back the winner. Indeed, the choice of Commission President remains one of the most opaque decisions in the European Union. Heads of state make the decision on the basis of personal sympathy and horse-trading.

Germany will emerge from the Corfu summit with Jurgen Trompf as head of the Council secretariat, one of the most important jobs in the EU bureaucracy. Belgium and Portugal both have candidates to head the Western European Union, the EU's defence arm.

But several diplomats discounted the idea of a 'package deal' yesterday. The job of secretary-general of Nato is not up for grabs at the moment: Manfred Worner, the current incumbent, is ill but recuperating.

Britain is campaigning to win the top slot at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for Lord Lawson of Blaby, but a decision on this must be taken before Corfu, and by a much larger number of countries than just the EU twelve.

(Photograph omitted)