Lubbers winning the race to head Nato

SARAH HELM

Brussels

After two weeks of back-room negotiation, Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister, appears to have won broad backing to become the next Nato Secretary-General.

Mr Lubbers has not yet been formally proposed for the job, and Washington has not yet stated its position. But with German, French and British support, a formal announcement is expected shortly.

For Britain and the United States, Mr Lubbers is a compromise who has emerged as favourite in the absence of a more attractive candidate. After the resignation of the Belgian Willy Claes over a bribe scandal in Belgium, Washington and London had hoped that a heavyweight candidate would emerge at a crucial period in Nato's history.

According to Foreign Office sources, Britain would have backed Volke Ruhe, the former German defence minister, but he expressed no interest. John Major last week voiced the intention of presenting a strong British candidate: Sir Leon Brittan, Britain's senior European Union commissioner.

Mr Major was encouraged to put a name forward by the US, which first expressed the hope that Douglas Hurd would take the job. However, the former foreign secretary has shown no interest in the Nato position.

The suggestion that Sir Leon be put forward was apparently not greeted with enthusiasm by Britain's European partners. Although highly respected, he was not considered sufficiently popular, or to have enough experience in defence.

The Hague has been reluctant to propose Mr Lubbers formally following a string of failures by the Dutch to win top European posts. Germany was widely believed to be opposed to Mr Lubbers, who tried unsuccessfully last year to become President of the European Commission. However, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is now keen to forge close ties with the Netherlands. France is eager to support Mr Lubbers, in order to prevent Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the former Danish foreign minister, from getting the job. Angered by Danish protests over French nuclear tests, Paris has manoeuvred hard against the Danish candidate.

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