Tories hold fire over EU chief

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JOHN MAJOR last night looked to have a free run from his backbenchers over the choice of the next European Union president, despite firm indications that he will back Jacques Santer, the Luxembourg Prime Minister

His anti-Maastricht backbenchers, who were jubilant when the Prime Minister vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene at Corfu, are now resigned to whoever becomes president being more federalist than they would wish. They accept that Britain cannot veto all candidates, and are holding their fire for the negotiations that run up to the 1996 inter- governmental conference.

As one Euro-sceptic MP said: 'We are going to have a federalist (as president) and there's not much we can do about it. What we need to do is tackle the system, not the symptoms.' James Cran, the MP for Beverley in Humberside, and unofficial whip for the Euro-sceptics, said: 'I personally would like the Government to veto any other candidate like Dehaene, who is a federalist.

'But if they choose for tactical reasons not to do so, they must make it clear that we will use the veto more liberally in the Council of Ministers if anything comes before us that is federalist in nature.' The 1996 negotiations were more important than the personality of the new president, Mr Cran said, and while a predisposition had arisen for governments not to use the veto, 'we should revive the practice'.

Mr Major signalled his backing for Mr Santer at Prime Minister's questions when Margaret Beckett said that he had vetoed the appointment of one conservative Prime Minister from a Benelux country who supported the social chapter in favour of another who did likewise.

Mr Major said there was a substantial difference between the policies he vetoed last week and those followed by the candidates still remaining in the ring.