US veto on Lubbers for Nato angers Europe

SARAH HELM

Brussels.

The transatlantic dispute over who should take the job of Nato secretary general deepened yesterday when Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch Prime Minister, favoured by the Europeans, was forced withdraw his candidacy because the US refused to back him.

Traditionally discreet consultation over the Nato succession erupted into an unseemly row, as Europeans blamed the US for undermining Mr Lubbers, and the US blamed the Europeans for failing to consult them before putting the Dutchman forward.

The US is now understood to be floating Hans Haikkerup, the Danish defence minister, as a new possibility.

Washington's rejection of Mr Lubbers resulted, in large part, from a determination to prove to Congress that Nato could be trusted to run a Bosnian peace force, including thousands of US troops.

The Clinton administration let it be known Mr Lubbers was found to be "not up to speed" on Bosnia when he visited Washington last week.

The Europeans argue that the job of secretary general always goes to a European, and that the views of Paris, Bonn and London are, therefore, crucial. The US always takes Nato's top military jobs. "The American have handled all of this very badly," said one European diplomat.

The dispute has exposed serious flaws in transatlantic diplomacy at a time when the alliance is attempting to display unanimity of purpose over the Balkans peace plan. Furthermore, the failure to produce a new candidate has prolonged the embarrassment caused to Nato by the resignation last month of Willy Claes, the former secretary general, over corruption allegations.

Late yesterday Nato ambassadors met to consider their next move but produced no solution. The Europeans' second choice, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the former Danish Foreign Minister, will fly to France on Monday, apparently to assuage French objections to his candidacy.

Nato is left to scour the bastions of European power for new candidates, and Mr Lubbers, who was vetoed as President of the European Commission - on that occasion by Germany - is left once again to nurse his bruised pride.

"It is an enormous public humiliation. Fancy saying a former prime minister is not up to the job of running Nato," said an alliance official in Brussels.

The Nato job, which involves mediating between the 16 alliance ambassadors and comes with a smart house, a car and a pounds 150,000 salary, is not attracting Europe's heavyweights. Douglas Hurd, the British former British foreign secretary, was Washington's favourite, but Mr Hurd turned the job down. New efforts may be made now by John Major to twist Mr Hurd's arm. Britain may also consider again whether to propose Sir Leon Brittan, the EU trade commissioner.

Britain first favoured Volker Ruhe, the German defence minister, but Mr Ruhe also showed no interest.

The US is against a German candidate, pointing out that Claus Neumann, a German four-star general, is about to take over as head of Nato's military committee.

Although the Danish Defence Minister, Mr Haikkerup, is respected as bright and energetic, at 50 he may be viewed as too young by some alliance leaders.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister, has also been suggested as an outsider. "We are down to a list of credible candidates who are not available and those who are available but not credible," said a Nato official last night.

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