Corfu may trigger presidential rethink

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JOHN MAJOR has done the European Union a big favour. The debacle in Corfu proves there is a desperate need for drastic reform of the EU's system of president-making.

The fiasco was far from unpredictable; indeed it suited many of those present admirably. But the way it happened, and the reasons why, indicate that the informal methods of choosing a Commission President are deeply flawed.

Three factors prevented agreement. First and most, John Major could not bring himself to support the candidacy of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister and the front-runner. He objected to the way that the decision had been set up before the summit, and to the 'interventionist' tendencies of Mr Dehaene. Even after his own candidate, Sir Leon Brittan, dropped out, and Mr Dehaene was the only horse in the field, he refused to back him.

It was, in some ways, a classic of the genre: 11 to one, the Continent isolated from Britain yet again. In the background, it is true, was Mr Major's fear of confronting the far-right factions in the Conservative Party. The right-wing press had whipped up a cloud of dust around Mr Dehaene, painting him as an arch-federalist and even a Socialist (which he is not). He is regarded in Belgium as virtually a Thatcherite. On EU issues he is no more federalist than anybody else likely to run the European Commission. But there was more to this than the tedious parading of Tory internal politics. The second reason for the failure was that it was evident to all assembled in Corfu that there was simply no consensus.

Both serious candidates - Mr Dehaene and the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers - had warmish support from most countries but neither came out as a hot favourite. The retreat of Mr Lubbers on Friday night was only achieved through intense French and German pressure on Spain, Italy and the Netherlands: pressure that left a legacy of bad feeling.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there was a more general unhappiness over the way the consultation procedure was carried out in advance of the meeting. The Greek government, in the chair of the EU, had done their usual pre-summit trip through EU capitals to prepare the ground, but in practice the real decisions appeared to be being made elsewhere.

When Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl met at Mulhouse in France this month, they irritated many member states by appearing to anoint a candidate who had not even declared, Mr Dehaene.

The broader reasons behind the chaos help to explain both why Mr Major felt able to veto Mr Dehaene and why he will probably get away with it. The events of Friday night seem clear cut. On the first vote eight states voted for Mr Dehaene, three for Mr Lubbers and one (Britain) for Sir Leon Brittan. The second time around, 10 voted for the Belgian, two against; by the next morning, the Netherlands had thrown in its hand, leaving Britain alone.

But the Prime Minister had, according to Italian sources, already intimated to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, that he was going to use his veto. Mr Berlusconi backed Mr Lubbers and gave his second vote to Mr Dehaene in the certain knowledge that his candidacy was going to be blocked anyway. Spain may have done the same. Diplomats from other states confided later that they had been deeply unhappy about the way the process was handled; some who backed Mr Dehaene seem to have done so largely to avoid alienating Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand.

Mr Kohl bears a heavy responsibility for what happened. He was sharply questioned afterwards by German journalists about the damage done to Dutch-German relations by spurning Mr Lubbers, once a favourite. His preferred candidate, Mr Dehaene, was chosen principally because Mr Kohl 'got on with him', officials said, hardly an adequate reason to make the Belgian anything but a drinking buddy.

The bullying style of the German Chancellor at the summit irritated many who saw the imposition of a candidate as undemocratic. Even German officials say privately that the Chancellor, a sure-footed operator in domestic politics, is a clumsy performer in Europe, showing too little concern, or even understanding, for the problems or wishes of other member states.

Corfu may stir a move towards indirect elections for the post of Commission President by the European Parliament. The lack of democracy and transparency in the process leading up to Corfu made the final failure all but inevitable.