Ireland under pressure to find Commission president

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The Independent Online

Ireland's Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, has begun a race against time to smooth an acrimonious Anglo-French rift and break the deadlock over the choice of a new president for the European Commission.

Ireland's Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, has begun a race against time to smooth an acrimonious Anglo-French rift and break the deadlock over the choice of a new president for the European Commission.

Mr Ahern has less than 10 days to get a deal on a successor to Romano Prodi, who steps down at the end of October, if the decision is to be taken before the end of Ireland's EU presidency.

The front-runner and Franco-German candidate, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian premier, bowed out of the race after being blocked by Tony Blair at a meeting on Thursday night. For his part, the French President, Jacques Chirac, made it clear that he would not accept Britain's European commissioner Chris Patten, who was nominated by Europe's centre-right parties and put forward by Italy's premier, Silvio Berlusconi.

Assuming he can find a compromise, Mr Ahern will ask EU heads of government to come together again, either on Saturday night, Sunday morning or on 30 June, the last day of Ireland's EU presidency.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy supremo, stepped into the vacuum by saying it would be hard to say no to the commission president job should he be asked. But most nations want him to continue in his foreign policy post.

The most likely successor, the centre-right Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, says he is bound by a pledge to the voters who re-elected him to stay in the Grand Duchy. But continued deadlock and repeated requests could provide him with a fig leaf for changing his mind. Close to Germany and France, he would be an unpalatable candidate for Mr Blair, but the Prime Minister would find it hard to block a second Franco-German candidate.

With the centre-right emerging strongly from the European elections, there is an assumption that the next commission president will be from their ranks. Two main contenders are now Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the Portuguese premier, and France's Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier. But Mr Barroso's support for the Iraq war might raise hackles in Paris. And a French candidate is unlikely to win, since a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Trichet, holds the presidency of the European Central Bank.

The EU leaders need to make their choice swiftly if the timetable for approval of the new president by the European Parliament is to be met.

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