Corfu storm leaves heavy task for the bridge-builders

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EUROPE was yesterday alive with the sound of frantic bridge-building as diplomats sought to repair some of the political damage inflicted by the EU's spectacular weekend failure to appoint a successor to Jacques Delors.

Some of the crucial alliances underpinning the EU have been badly battered in the Corfu storm, where national interest and personal preference triumphed over any pretence of solidarity.

The task of clearing up the mess has fallen to Germany, as it takes up the EU presidency on Friday. It is probably the country least suited, since it was Franco-German railroading of Jean-Luc Dehaene candidature that so angered many other states, particularly Britain and the Netherlands.

The duo, whose partnership has from the beginning driven the construction of Europe, have in this instance been judged by everyone else as too domineering. The alliance, often shaky, has been severely tested of late (over Gatt, for example) and survived. France yesterday pinned the blame firmly on Britain and said Mr Dehaene remained a candidate, though he himself said he would not push for the job. 'It is up to the German presidency to take charge of this matter,' said the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe.

Bonn and Paris, whose EU presidencies run back-to-back, are likely to find their room for manoeuvre limited, and will have to tread more carefully in future - although both countries are in the run-up to national elections and are too self-absorbed to make Europe their principal consideration for the moment. The fruit of any initiatives they launch over the next year are likely to be harvested by Spain. Madrid takes over the EU presidency from France in the second half of next year and will have the important job of pulling together arrangements for the 1996 conference to revise the Maastricht treaty.

Italy and Spain, two of the first- round supporters of Ruud Lubbers, have forged an interesting partnership over the past few weeks despite having governments of different political hues. It was the two countries' leaders, Silvio Berlusconi and Felipe Gonzalez, who persuaded Mr Lubbers he must stand down.

They bridge the gap between the big and small countries. Spain has enjoyed excellent links with socialist France and built a new partnership with Germany. Italy has worked to win over the conservative French government and has espoused a flexible view of Europe that Britain identifies with. Either could act as power-broker.

Ironically, given that Chancellor Kohl is for the moment extremely angry with John Major, a future decision will have to turn on the strength of the Anglo-German relationship.