Deadlock on Delors' successor

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THE FIGHT to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission seems set for deadlock, forcing a postponement of the decision beyond the European summit, according to diplomats and officials in Brussels.

The chances of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the favoured candidate of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, and currently Belgian Prime Minister, are fading. Those of his opponents, including Ruud Lubbers, the outgoing Dutch premier, are on the ascendant. Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish Prime Minister, was yesterday said to have informed Germany that his preferred candidate was Peter Sutherland, the outgoing head of Gatt.

Officials in Bonn and Brussels have begun worrying aloud that the recent high-profile launching of Mr Dehaene as a joint Franco-German candidate has backfired. It led Mr Lubbers to reaffirm his determination and alienated some smaller countries.

One official noted: 'They are too sure of themselves. You cannot create a momentum which is irresistible. Especially if you are strong, then you should be particularly gentle.' Even within the German camp, there is some concern that the whole affair may have been mishandled. A German official suggested: 'The way things were handled was not very productive.' Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand appeared to take it for granted that their candidate would win through.

At Corfu, Mr Dehaene will probably receive the backing of eight countries, but Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and perhaps Greece will back other candidates. A decision may then be put off to either a mini-summit or a meeting of foreign ministers in Germany in early September.

If Mr Dehaene does not get the job at Corfu, it would be very difficult for him to fight on, diplomats say. He would risk appearing less than committed to his government, which faces local elections later this year, and also risk losing face if he does not get the job. He has yet to clarify whether he is a candidate, and may even decide before Corfu to indicate that he has dropped out of the running, according to Belgian sources.

Mr Lubbers is in any case due to leave government and 'time is on his side', said a senior diplomat, if there is no decision at Corfu. If France or Germany refuses to back away from Mr Dehaene and Mr Lubbers refuses to drop his candidacy and there is total deadlock, the two outside candidates - Peter Sutherland, and Sir Leon Brittan, EU Commissioner and former British Conservative minister, would also be boosted.

The meeting may hinge on key job choices for the next Commission, due to start next January. France may be persuaded to switch allegiance if the price is right. That will probably mean a top job running competition or industry for a French Commissioner. Sir Leon's goal is thought to be an enhanced role running EU foreign policy.

Some officials have hinted there may have been differences of opinion between the German Foreign Ministry and Chancellor Kohl's own office, on how to play the issue of the succession to Mr Delors. One official in Bonn suggested that a 'clear majority' outside the Chancellor's office would prefer Mr Lubbers to Mr Dehaene. Many argue that both Mr Lubbers and Mr Dehaene - dedicated Europeans, and representatives of small European countries - would be good presidential candidates.