'I have said consistently that we must reach a consensus on the appointment of the president of the Commission . . . The president must have the clear long-term support of us all or he cannot do the job properly.'
Sir Leon Brittan was the best-qualified candidate, but after his withdrawal, Mr Major said he was prepared to support Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister.
'I could not join the consensus for Jean-Luc Dehaene . . . There is no personal element in this decision . . . nor is it a question of nationality.'
He warned the council that to prolong the debate would be unproductive. 'There will be no change in the British government's position. This is a matter of principle for us. We are not going to get a consensus for Mr Dehaene.'
Mr Major said he was confident that the consultation between the presidency and all the member states would produce a candidate who had the support of all the members. 'That is what happened in 1984 and it could happen again. There is no point in inviting me to reconsider. I have thought about this very carefully. I have reconsidered. This situation is only a crisis if everybody wants to make it one.'
British officials said later that Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, had said the process of consultation involving Mr Dehaene had been 'defective'. That was seen as a reference to allegations of an agreement by Paris and Bonn to promote Mr Dehaene. British officials said it had contributed to the problem.
'Dehaene finally presented himself on Friday. Even before that, a good deal of unattributable briefing had been presented in favour of Dehaene, which was a poor substitute for proper consultation,' said one British source.
'We had a clear preference for Brittan and Lubbers, and did not find Dehaene acceptable. It is a matter of qualifications for the job,' he added.
Asked whether Peter Sutherland, the Irish Gatt negotiator, was Britain's preferred candidate, he added: 'We are now in a situation where new candidates will need to come forward or be brought forward.'