Leading Article: Buggins lines up for the top jobs

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THIS summer, four and perhaps five of the world's most important international organisations will be looking for new chief executives. Those who fill these vacancies - at the European Commission, the OECD, the Western European Union, the World Trade Organisation and possibly Nato - can have a real impact on the prosperity and security of hundreds of millions of people. Yet they are appointed by methods that no sensible company, civil service or modern democracy would recognise.

Competence and experience are the least important factors in deciding who gets which job. Achieving a certain stature in one's own country is merely a prerequisite. Retired politicians always have a head start, preferably those of cabinet rank and often - as in the case of Ruud Lubbers's bid for the presidency of the European Commission - ex- prime ministers.

In theory, those who head international organisations are supposed to leave their national prejudices at home. In practice, countries jockey hard to place their own citizens in powerful jobs, and to prevent their competitors from winning too often. As a result, a system of international Buggins' turn operates. Sir Leon Brittan is considered only an outside candidate for the EU job, not only because the EU's small countries think it is their turn, but also because Lord Jenkins ran the Commission 10 years ago. He is also unlikely to be appointed to the WTO because there is pressure to put in someone from the Third World. Politics plays its part, too: one consideration that excluded Felipe Gonzalez from the Commission presidency was that the Spanish premier would have been the second socialist there in a row.

This principle works across different jobs, too. There may be two highly competent British candidates - Sir Leon Brittan for the EU or the WTO, Lord Lawson for the OECD - but it is generally agreed that the Government must choose to back only one, for other countries would be unwilling to see Britons at the head of two powerful institutions at the same time.

More petty concerns also play an alarming part. France is said to have wanted the EU job to go to Jean-Luc Dehaene, Belgium's prime minister, because he speaks French. Bonn is believed to dislike Mr Lubbers because he was insufficiently enthusiastic about German unification.

It is unrealistic to expect these vacancies to be filled either by an open competition, or with any attention paid to international public opinion. But it would be nice if once in a while, proven ability were to carry just a little more weight.