Leading Article: Poor tactics, worse strategy

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JOHN MAJOR seems to have had two main motives for blocking

Jean-Luc Dehaene's appointment as successor to Jacques Delors in Brussels. One was to propitiate the Eurosceptic right wing of his own party. The other was to register a protest against the way the French and Germans sought to steamroller through their choice, in the substantial shape of the Belgian prime minister.

It is a measure of Mr Major's continuing weakness that he feels obliged to pander to the anti-

Brussels lobby - even though he knows each concession feeds its appetite. In the short term, he has been successful. The congratulations of his sacked chancellor will be something to cherish. At the same time, he has further upset the pro-European wing of the party. Its members must comfort themselves that several other member states were pleased to see a blow struck against thoroughly insensitive Franco-German diplomacy.

Beside the Prime Minister's short-term political gain must be set serious damage to Britain's medium-term European interests. Germany is by far the most powerful member of the European Union. Chancellor Helmut Kohl seems likely to win a fourth term in October's general election. It was he who enabled Mr Major to obtain his opt- outs from the Maastricht treaty. Yet in Corfu he was reportedly enraged by Mr Major's obduracy. With Germany taking over the rotating EU presidency on 1 July, it will be for Mr Kohl to clear up the debris at a special summit next month.

The episode shows a serious failure of British tactics. There was never a hope of Sir Leon Brittan being chosen to succeed Jacques Delors. Mr Major should not have publicly endorsed his candidacy. Instead, he should have tried to build an alliance in favour of the former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers. That would have been both less chauvinistic and more realistic.

After Corfu, strong British support for any new candidate could prove the kiss of death. Sadly, that may exclude the man with the best qualifications for the job: Ireland's Peter Sutherland, the former European Commissioner and outgoing director general of Gatt.

The Corfu debacle need not have been wholly in vain. It will contribute to a growing conviction that summit meetings are not the right place to clinch crucial appointments. Even if preceded by successful negotiations between senior officials, these conclaves are undemocratic and opaque.

It is small comfort that members of the European Parliament now have the right to question the new Commission President: a case of too little, too late. With national governments still nominating candidates, why should MEPs not decide who should be given the job?

The second lesson of Corfu is that the Franco-German alliance is losing momentum as the motor of European integration. With four new and smallish members due to join next January, the Paris-Bonn axis is likely to be the more strongly resented. Mr Major should ensure that this country is close to, if not at the heart of, whatever alignment emerges as the new driving force.