EU leaders set day to name new president

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The Independent Online

European Union leaders yesterday pencilled in next Tuesday as the day to name the next president of the European Commission, as Ireland's Peter Sutherland, and an ex-premier of Belgium, Jean-Luc Dehaene, emerged as late contenders.

European Union leaders yesterday pencilled in next Tuesday as the day to name the next president of the European Commission, as Ireland's Peter Sutherland, and an ex-premier of Belgium, Jean-Luc Dehaene, emerged as late contenders.

Mr Sutherland, a former European Commissioner and boss of the World Trade Organisation, said during a visit to Rome that his name "was floated among others" by Bertie Ahern, the Prime Minister of Ireland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. However, Mr Sutherland, who is regarded as a political heavyweight, will struggle to win the backing of France and Germany.

The Franco-German candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium's premier, was blocked by Tony Blair at the acrimonious EU summit last week.

Chris Patten, one of Britain's European Commissioners, also failed to get enough support at the fractious gathering. The Irish presidency said yesterday that, providing a consensual candidate can be found, EU leaders will meet in Brussels next Tuesday evening, after most return from the Nato summit in Istanbul.

Paris and Berlin have said they want the next Commission president to come from a country that participates in all the EU's big policy initiatives. That makes Mr Sutherland's candidature difficult, since Ireland is outside the Schengen free travel zone and, as a neutral country, has excluded itself from EU defence plans.

But Mr Sutherland, who left the Commission in 1989, has had little contact with the people who will make the decision: the EU's current premiers. His role as chairman of two multi-nationals, BP and the investment bank Goldman Sachs, could make him a hard sell in France.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg and favourite for the post, knows he could win the job if he is willing to go back on a pre-election promise to stay in the Grand Duchy. So far he has insisted he is not interested, prompting speculation the Mr Dehaene could emerge as a candidate. In 1994 the Belgian politician was vetoed by John Major for the same job on the grounds that he was too federalist.

Were France and Germany to back him, Tony Blair would face a dilemma. Having blocked the candidature of Guy Verhofstadt, the current Belgian premier, at an acrimonious EU summit last week, Mr Blair might be reluctant to do the same to a second Belgian. But agreeing to accept the man blocked by the UK in 1994 would be politically problematic at home.

Because the centre right emerged the biggest group in the European elections, it is assumed that the next Commission president will be drawn from its ranks. Mr Dehaene fits that criteria and, though out of office since 1999, he played a key role in the convention that drafted the EU's constitution.

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