JOHN MAJOR, in a minority of one, fought the European summit to a standstill in Corfu yesterday over who should succeed Jacques Delors, obliging the Twelve to call another summit on the question next month.
In a performance that invited comparison with Margaret Thatcher's European style, the Prime Minister used the British veto to block the appointment of the Belgian, Jean-Luc Dehaene, as the next President of the European Commission.
Mr Dehaene, who has been energetically supported by France and Germany, said later that he remained a candidate, but his chances now look slim and other names will have to be brought forward.
Mr Major, speaking after the meeting, brushed aside criticism of his stance from Mr Delors and other European leaders. 'I am unperturbed about the arithmetic of eleven to one,' he said.
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, made it clear he fully supported the Prime Minister and sought to damp down the threat of a backlash from pro- European Tory MPs who complain that Mr Major has attempted to reassert the authority of his weakened leadership at the expense of European unity. He is expected to be given strong support by Euro- sceptic Tory MPs when he makes a Commons statement on the summit tomorrow.
In the small hours of Saturday, the summit had verged on farce as EU leaders met, broke up and - summoned by carphone - met again. Rumour and counter-rumour swept the island's hotels and briefing rooms as a huge effort was made to bring all 12 leaders into line behind one candidate.
By dawn it was clear that only Mr Major stood between Europe and a decision. Even the withdrawal of both the alternative candidates failed to break the deadlock. The Prime Minister said he objected both to the manner in which the candidacy of Mr Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, had been pressed, and to Mr Dehaene's 'interventionist' tendencies. An emergency summit will now have to be held on 15 July in Brussels, when the new candidates will be considered.
The list may then include Peter Sutherland, the Irish Gatt chief and a former EU Commissioner. He has long been the most talked about dark-horse candidate, but he does not have the support of his own government, and France may oppose him because of his Gatt role. There is also a posse of Belgians ready to ride to the rescue, including a former Com missioner, Etienne Davignon, a former prime minister, Wilfried Martens, and the finance minister, Philippe Maystadt.
Mr Major insisted yesterday that, whatever happened, he would not lift the veto on Mr Dehaene: 'As to whether Jean- Luc's candidacy could be revived with the support of the British government, the answer is no.'
The impasse comes only three months after Mr Major took on the rest of the EU over qualified majority voting and was forced, ignominiously, to climb down. This time Britain's objections are more clearly spelled out and the Prime Minister seems much more likely to have his way.
Mr Major was not quite so alone in Corfu as the figures suggest. In the first vote on Friday night the two other candidates, Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch Prime Minister, and Sir Leon Brittan, were still in contention. Four countries - Britain, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands - objected to Mr Dehaene.
Some of the other delegations which later swung behind the Belgian as the pressure mounted for a consensus, privately criticised the French and German governments for attempting to impose their candidate.
Mr Major said he objected to the lack of consultation with which the Dehaene campaign was run. 'It is a question of arriving by a process of full consultation at a candidate all countries can agree,' he said.
But the Prime Minister also made it clear he had ideological objections to the Belgian Prime Minister: 'Jean-Luc represents a tradition of big government. It is a tradition which in my view is not quite in touch with the direction in which Europe is now moving . . .
'Jean-Luc is liked and respected. The question we have to ask is, 'Is he the best candidate for the presidency in the next five years?' I came to the conclusion that he was not.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies