Claes emerges as favourite for Nato's top job

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BELGIUM, in the person of Willy Claes, the Foreign Minister, looks set to carry off one of the most senior posts in European politics now that Mr Claes has emerged as front runner for the job of Nato secretary-general.

His nomination would help heal wounds inflicted in July when Britain led a move to block the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Prime Minister of Belgium, who was set to succeed Jacques Delors as President of the European Commission.

Nato has been without a leader since Manfred Worner died last month. The nomination must be unanimous but the appointee emerges through a process of informal consultation; 11 of the 16 members of Nato are also EU member states. At first glance Mr Claes, who is 55, looks an unlikely candidate because his political background is essentially in economics.

A Flemish-speaking Socialist, he joined the party while still at school and came to national prominence through the union movement in a country where organised labour still wields significant political influence. His first cabinet post was as minister for education, but in the last two decades he has dominated the ministry of economic affairs where his record is mixed.

He was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1992 when the new Dehaene administration came to power. Domestically he has spent much of that time shaking off the shadow of political scandal. In the Belgian context the job of foreign affairs minister is chiefly concerned with Belgium's relationship with its EU allies and Mr Claes first got himself noticed internationally last autumn when Belgium took over the revolving EU presidency.

EU foreign ministers meet regularly on a monthly basis and it was Mr Claes who chaired difficult sessions, in particular the complex Gatt trade talks that dominated those six months. 'He is an exceptionally skilled negotiator. The French were ready to walk out on Gatt at any time and it was primarily Claes who kept them aboard. One of his great strengths is his ability to sum up the general mood yet keep discussion moving forward by wringing something extra from those participating,' said a senior EU diplomat yesterday.

Worner was also praised for his outstanding ability to hold together 16 different viewpoints in situations as politically complex and militarily dangerous as Yugoslavia.

Belgium is in favour of developing a European defence structure and supports reinforcing the Western European Union, the only all- European defence organisation. Belgian troops are part of the Eurocorps, the EU's embryonic standing army.

Such a background may not endear him to the United States but the feeling in Brussels is that Mr Claes's political skills will outweigh other factors. On past form he is unlikely to flaunt his national credentials; part of his European reputation is built on the fact that he was never seen to press Belgian interests.

His objectivity is due in part to the coalition nature of Belgian politics, which ensures that any policy decision is a complex compromise of principles. But it is also characteristic of his own political style, which can vary from pugnacious to moody.

(Photograph omitted)