Leading Article: The Belgian, the Dutchman the Brit and the Irishman

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The Independent Online
SHOWDOWN in Corfu. It could be the title of an airport novel about men with the scent of power in their nostrils, and intrigue stretching long into the Greek night as the bad brandy is passed around once more and the room fills with smoke. Instead it is the real-life setting in which the leaders of the European Union meet tonight to haggle over the successor to Jacques Delors as head of the European Commission. It is hard to imagine anything more calculated to induce scepticism about the workings of that controversial body than the deliberations of such a cabal behind closed doors.

A successor is chosen by agreement among the leaders, but the European citizen may never know who decided what, or why. The Commission is to be led by somebody whose mandate extends towards the end of the century but whose appointment is bequeathed by men who are likely to be out of office long before then. The choice will emerge after a clash of interests between, among other factors, the joint determination of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the dissenting voice of John Major and the wish of Silvio Berlusconi for Italy to become a heavyweight broker for top international jobs. The Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, believes a swift decision is necessary for credibility's sake. There should be a better way to choose a Commission President than this.

Mr Mitterrand and Mr Kohl want to impose the uncharismatic Prime Minister of Belgium, Jean- Luc Dehaene, on the grounds that he is a brilliant compromiser, hails from a small country and roughly straddles the linguistic divide of north-western Europe. A less inspiring set of reasons could hardly be adduced. Then there is Ruud Lubbers, outgoing Prime Minister of the Netherlands, whose animus towards Mr Kohl and criticism of German policy make him an unpromising choice to head a Union in which the reunited Germany is the biggest player. Bringing up the rear is Mr Major's favoured candidate, Leon Brittan.

Perhaps the leaders will conclude their deliberations in one sitting and Europe will awake on Saturday to the news that one or other of the above gentlemen is to be installed. If that is the case then the Foreign Secretary may devour his breakfast reassured in the knowledge that no 'philosopher king' shall rule in Brussels, as he so tellingly put it last week.

If not, then there exists a compromise as elegant as it is admirable, with the impolitic virtue of appointing exactly the right man for the job. He is Peter Sutherland, the successful Irish Commissioner who went off to head the world trade talks with such panache and decision. From a small neutral country outside any axis between Bonn and Paris or London and Rome, he is moderately right of centre and advocates free trade. He combines political skill with the ability to motivate officials and to convey his message to a doubting public. Mr Sutherland and Ireland should step into the breach.