Delors' EU post divides member states

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EUROPEAN leaders are girding themselves for possible deadlock at next week's Corfu summit, when they attempt to find a candidate for one of the world's most important jobs: the president of the European Commission.

The safe money is still on the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene. With Germany and France behind him, he should be a shoo-in at this stage. He is widely seen as a poor replacement for Jacques Delors, the outgoing president, however, and opposition is building to his candidacy. Italy, Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are mentioned as countries prepared to block him.

The German and French endorsement of Mr Dehaene has annoyed other countries, and diplomats are talking about possible 'dark horse' candidates emerging in the increasingly likely event of a deadlock.

Peter Sutherland, the Irishman who heads the Gatt world trade organisation, though not a candidate and without even the backing of his own government, is being spoken of as an ideal alternative candidate.

'He is a very respectable compromise candidate,' said Suzy Symes, head of the European Programme at London's Royal Institute for International Affairs. Other sources say that John Major may have little option but to try and block Mr Dehaene because of the perception on the right of the Conservative Party that he is an old fashioned dyed- in-the-wool federalist.

Reports that Italy's new Prime Minister, Silvio Ber lusconi, has not endorsed Mr Dehaene and that Spain is also hedging its bets point to a groundswell of opposition in countries that are traditionally at the fringe of decision- making in Europe.

The Netherlands' candidate, Ruud Lubbers, is increasingly seen as a no-hope candidate. He made a poor impression on a recent tour of European capitals to promote his candidacy. Britain's Sir Leon Brittan has come across as a far more competent figure, with a thorough grasp of the process of managing the European Union and a clarity of vision about where it should be going.

The prospect of Mr Sutherland entering the race causes most excitement, although he is pointedly not campaigning for the job. He does face the difficulty of being from the opposition Fine Gael party and will need the endorsement of the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds. But sources in Dublin believe he is a strong contender.

'If there is a clash at Corfu and they have to come back in the autumn, there is every prospect he will get it - and he would be excellent,' a prominent former politician said.