Leading Article: An open field apres Delors

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WITH Jacques Delors' two terms as president of the European Commission ending in December, the choice of a successor is rising up the agenda of the European Union. A decision is expected at the Corfu summit in June. Yesterday, before meeting Chancellor Helmut Kohl, John Major confirmed his backing for Sir Leon Brittan, the senior British commissioner.

The other fancied candidates are the outgoing Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers, who is about to quit domestic politics; the Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene; and the Irish former EU commissioner Peter Sutherland, who is leaving his post as Secretary-General of Gatt, though his availability is in doubt.

Following a man of Mr Delors' stature will not be easy. The ideal candidate needs to be endowed with imagination, negotiating skill and political clout. Imagination is required because, as Douglas Hurd pointed out yesterday, the EU's priority over the next five years must be to embrace the former Communist countries of eastern Europe. Their closer association and eventual entry will require sacrifices from all existing members. Sensitivity will also be needed in dealing with the four new members expected to join in 1995, a task to which Mr Kohl gave high priority yesterday.

An ability to broker tough compromises will be at a premium not just for that task, but also in preparing the intergovernmental conference in 1996, when the shape of the EU's institutions will require a drastic overhaul. Without considerable personal charisma and acknowledged political stature, the new incumbent will not be able to deal on equal terms with heads of government; and without strong leadership, the commission's role in policy formulation will shrivel. From the British viewpoint, Mr Delors' successor should also be a supporter of free trade against the protectionist tendencies of the French.

It seems to be accepted that after 10 years of a socialist president from a large member state, a right- of-centre successor from a small country is desirable. That would tend to exclude the well-qualified Sir Leon, who may also be handicapped by coming from a country whose ruling party is deeply split on Europe.

Mr Lubbers would be no less robust than Sir Leon in defence of free trade, and would be a good deal- maker. But his imaginative qualities are in doubt - as are those of Mr Dehaene, a late runner who proved his skills as a fixer during his country's presidency. Although Belgian views veer towards the French on free trade, a Benelux president would tend to put perceived EU interests before his country's.

Mr Sutherland's handicaps, should he be available, lie in coming from a non-Nato country and from a party currently in opposition at home: probably not an insuperable difficulty. In some ways he looks the best qualified. But the field is open enough to find room for a fifth, and perhaps more inspirational, candidate.