It is not a job Chancellor Kohl relishes. Germany helped precipitate the crisis with its ill-judged attempt, with France, to foist its choice of candidate - Jean-Luc Dehaene - on everybody else.
Although there is support for the UK defence that is was not the man but the manner of his choosing that was wrong, Britain's isolation has exasperated many of her EU partners, who remain unconvinced of British commitment to Europe.
This could lead the 11 to insist longer than is useful on the appointment of Mr Dehaene. But any decision must be by consensus. Italy has already declared that the Belgian should no longer be a runner, and the objections of Rome and London are enough to scupper his candidature.
Any compromise candidate must, by convention, be a Christian Democrat from a small country (replacing Jacques Delors, a Socialist from a large country). Peter Sutherland, the former Irish EC Commissioner, now head of the Gatt secretariat, is the name most loudly heard. Mr Sutherland - a tough negotiator and a good organiser, a man able to sell difficult ideas - would be an excellent choice. But there could be several reasons why his undeclared candidacy does not run very far.
For one thing, he does not have the support of the Irish government (in fact it is becoming increasingly clear that the Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, is deeply hostile to a Sutherland candidacy). The Gatt chief comes from the opposition party, Fine Gael; Mr Reynolds does not want to cede the single Irish seat on the Commission to the 'other party'. He may also fear that an Irish Commission president will be less able to protect Irish interests than an Irish commissioner (although the French never had cause for complaint about Mr Delors).
There are also protests that Mr Sutherland has never held elected office, although his remarkable success in the Gatt won him widespread international respect (except possibly in France). But his greatest handicap is more intangible: he is is suspected by many countries of being Britain's secret choice for the job. There is no evidence this is so: Mr Sutherland, although a devoted free marketeer, is also a committed European. Whatever the truth of their suspicions, the other 11 EU member states are in no mood to reward John Major.
Spain may play a crucial role. Felipe Gonzalez, the Prime Minister, is one of Europe's longest-serving statesmen and has on several occasions often acted as a power- broker. Although he initially supported the candidature of Ruud Lubbers, Mr Gonzalez is close to both Chancellor Kohl and President Francois Mitterrand. Spain is not perceived as allied to the 'big four' and could arbitrate between the big and little countries.
Two Italian names are circulating: Giuliano Amato, the former prime minister and a great conciliator; and Renato Ruggiero, who has already been tipped to head the new World Trade Organisation, which will police international trade. The president of Societe Generale, Belgium's biggest bank, Etienne Davignon, is the alternative Belgian. Mr Davignon was a European commissioner in the 1970s and 1980s, and many believe his time may be past.
There is a strong possibility that the eventual Commission president may be none of the above. A senior European diplomat said: 'Once the deal is done everyone will forget how difficult the nomination was. Somewhere out there is a name untainted by the antics of the last few weeks. It is on the tip of everybody's tongue, and in the coming weeks someone will voice it.'
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