EU heads for deadlock on presidency: Major backs Brittan against Lubbers and Dehaene to succeed Delors but a decision is likely to be postponed

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DEADLOCK on the choice of a new president for the EU Commission is all but certain at the Corfu summit this weekend, with the two main candidates both refusing to pull out of the race.

John Major would be relieved to postpone the decision until a special summit under the German presidency. The Prime Minister would face a storm of criticism from his anti-European right wing if the Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, wins. But the Government does not expect to be alone in seeking a delay.

Foreign Office sources hinted that they were hoping for a 'white knight' to emerge as an acceptable candidate during the next six months. Peter Sutherland, the former Irish EU Commissioner, now the head of Gatt, is one option Britain would be prepared to consider.

As European Union leaders drawn from Christian Democratic parties assembled in Brussels last night, Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, discounted the idea that he was about to defer to Mr Dehaene. 'No. Not at all, of course not,' said the Dutchman testily.

At their meeting last night the Christian Democrats failed to agree on a consensus candidate.

Mr Lubbers' irritation has grown as France and Germany have tried to make his opponent's selection seem a foregone conclusion. Mr Dehaene, accused by British Euro-sceptics of being a Euro-federalist in the Delors mould, only formally entered the race last week and is not likely to back away now. The two met last night in a frosty encounter. Both will also be at the two-day summit starting in Corfu tomorrow.

Germany's Helmut Kohl, also a Christian Democrat, has annoyed several EU leaders by appearing to settle the matter when he met Francois Mitterrand in Mulhouse earlier this month. Now the Italians are saying that they see no reason why a decision needs to be taken immediately; the British concur; the Portuguese are miffed; and it is more than likely that there will be no decision.

In London, senior ministers fear the Prime Minister has been boxed into a corner by reports of his intention to use the veto against the allegedly Euro-fanatical Mr Dehaene in Corfu. They fear he would lose credibility and face a rebellion by the Tory right wing if he accepted the Belgian, even though, in truth, the Government has no particular objection to him.

Germany takes on the EU presidency next month, and it has already considered the possibilities for a special summit to settle the question in September. Britain is still supporting Sir Leon Brittan, the EU's trade commissioner, for the president's job. But his chances are slim; it seems more likely he will get an extension of his role to cover more foreign policy issues when Commission portfolios are sorted out later this year.

If there is no decision in Corfu, a 'dark horse' might be preferred to break the deadlock.

Mr Sutherland is not yet the preferred candidate of the Irish government, which wants to keep Padraig Flynn in situ as a Commissioner in Brussels. But the Irish government accepts that if he became a serious contender for the president's job, it would have to back him.