The secret Union that sidelines voters

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The Independent Online
WHILE voters throughout the 12 member states have been going to the polls, the week's elections to the European Parliament are but a sideshow to a different war raging in the corridors of European power.

For the first time in its history, thanks to the Maastricht treaty, the incoming parliament must confirm the appointment of the new European Commission, which takes office at the start of next year. The parliament would like to mark the moment which confirms its coming of age with a series of US-style hearings. But there is a problem rounding up suitable candidates.

The seats of power in Europe can be difficult to pinpoint. Within the European Union, nothing can be decided without the approval of national ministers. But the Commission initiates legislation and the parliament can successfully obstruct it. The political environment that informs policy-making is, however, much wider. It includes independent bodies such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which guided the economic reconstruction of post-war Europe.

Then there is the Western European Union, the EU's defence arm, that is now the nucleus of attempts to develop Europe's muscles. This stands alongside Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which has been the key to the West's post-1945 security.

Appointment to these institutions is as secret as the parliamentary elections are open. Europe's most powerful jobs are parcelled out among friends in a series of obscure and complicated deals that try to ensure everyone has something to take home. Like good Catholics, all ordinary Europeans can do is sit back and wait for the white smoke to billow forth.

In this latest reshuffle of the pack, France is one of the main losers. Already, Jacques Attali, the president of the Bank for European Reconstruction and Development, was forced to stand down last year in face of criticisms of mismanagement of the body supposed to co-ordinate investment in eastern Europe. Now, since their span of office is over, the EU President, Jacques Delors, and the head of the OECD, Jean-Claude Paye, are also to be replaced. Their resignations will inevitably lead to a general clearing-out in the French-nominated bureaucracies that supported them.

Mr Paye has said he would be happy to stand again, but the 25-nation OECD - newly enlarged with the accession of Mexico - is keen to use this opportunity to revitalise the organisation that many believe has become too tame of late. The front-runners for the pounds 125,000 job (tax-free) are Britain's Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, and Donald Johnston, president of the governing Liberal Party in Canada. While Lord Lawson has impressed with his powers of intellect, Mr Johnston has the backing of the US which, with Japan, pays nearly half the OECD's costs.

With Mexico joining the club and the signing of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US feels it is time to bury the tradition that the OECD is run by Europeans.

The appointment of a Commission president is a job for Europeans only, but that hardly narrows the field. Again, there are certain unwritten rules to respect - large countries take over from small countries, Socialists succeed Christian Democrats, and vice versa. Thus, the two principal contenders are Christian Democrat prime ministers from Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Atlanticism of the Dutchman Ruud Lubbers, compounded by the perception that the Netherlands badly mishandled negotiations of preliminary drafts of the Maastricht treaty, has generated a certain mistrust in France and Germany. Paris and Bonn, the axis around which Europe turns, have jointly proposed Belgium's Jean-Luc Dehaene as an alternative. Spain, on the urging of Bonn, is apparently prepared to accept this choice, but Britain is opposed on the grounds that Mr Dehaene's vision of Europe is too federalist, and that the senior British Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, is also a candidate.

The decision is supposed to be made in two weeks' time at the Corfu summit. But Greece, which currently holds the EU presidency, has not prepared the ground and enthusiasm for all candidates is so lukewarm that diplomats believe there will be no decision this month, paving the way for another summit in the autumn and the emergence of a 'white knight', such as the ebullient Irish Gatt negotiator, Peter Sutherland.

Against this indecision, the defence jobs come into play. The head of Nato, Manfred Worner, although ill, has no intention of stepping down, but former Dutch foreign minister Hans van den Broek is fancied. Belgium and Portugal both have candidates for the WEU post. Custom suggests that Belgium cannot run the WEU and the Commission and Mr Lubbers has dismissed any notion that he might like the WEU job.

The process is not so crude that the jobs are simply handed round as part of a package deal. But appointments are not made in isolation. It will be difficult to decide anything, such as lesser jobs in the bureaucracy or the 17 commissioners themselves, until key posts are unlocked. Governments seem in no hurry even to start looking for the key.

(Photographs omitted)

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