Race to succeed Delors is still wide open: The search for a new EU Commission President remains snagged by Irish politics and continental suspicions of Britain

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THE RACE to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission is wide open. Peter Sutherland, the Irish Gatt world-trade chief and a media favourite for the post, was yesterday despondent about his chances.

'I have absolutely no reason to believe that the question of my candidacy will arise under any circumstances,' Mr Sutherland said yesterday in Brussels. He is handicapped by the perception that he is Britain's preferred choice, when no one is in a mood to do John Major any favours. His own government does not support him because of his allegiance to the Fine Gael opposition.

His free-market approach appeals to Germany and probably Italy, his role in Gatt won him admiration in France, his wife is Spanish and he represents one of the informal club of poor EU countries: Ireland, Spain, Greece and Portugal. Yet all this is worth nothing unless someone puts his name forward. Britain cannot, Ireland will not, Germany and France are loath to be seen to 'dictate' a choice again. Italy and Spain are silent.

The chances of the spurned Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, grow weaker despite protestations from the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel. Officials in Bonn privately acknowledge that Franco-German clumsiness over Mr Dehaene's candidacy was partly to blame for the Corfu debacle. 'These things were discussed too little,' an official said yesterday.

Mr Kinkel flies to London tomorrow for talks with the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. Though billed as a chance to sound out opinion before Germany's EU presidency starts on Friday, the main topic will be Mr Delors' successor. Bonn does not want to concede too much to Mr Major. Mr Kinkel is preceded by the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Martino. The Italians, whose new government is wary of close and rapid European integration, could play a pivotal role in nominating and building support for a new candidate.

The names of possible white knights circulate continuously, but none has emerged as front runner. Few expect the debate to be played out in public, least of all by the Germans who are trying to salve widespread indignation at the way they tried to foist Jean-Luc Dehaene on everybody. 'They will decide in private and let the name be known only when they are sure the consensus is already there,' confided a diplomat.

Belgium, according to one argument, deserves a second shot to prove the EU has nothing against Belgium itself. The stock of Etienne Davignon, 61, who narrowly missed being nominated as compromise candidate for the Commission presidency in 1984, is running high. He is chairman of Belgium's largest holding company, Societe Generale, having served eight years as Industry Commissioner in the 1970s and early 1980s. He is in close touch with EU affairs. France would welcome a French-speaker.

Wilfried Martens is another possible candidate. President of the European People's Party which groups Europe's Christian Democrats, he was Belgian prime minister in the 1980s during the Maastricht treaty negotiations. A convinced integrationist, he may be unpopular with Britain.

Dear Albert Reynolds, page 19