Search for Commission president still deadlocked

Stephen Castle,Andrew Grice
Saturday 19 June 2004 00:00 BST

Efforts to find a new president of the European Commission collapsed in acrimony amid an Anglo-French row last night after Tony Blair blocked Belgium's premier, Guy Verhofstadt, for the post.

Efforts to find a new president of the European Commission collapsed in acrimony amid an Anglo-French row last night after Tony Blair blocked Belgium's premier, Guy Verhofstadt, for the post.

After an open confrontation between the French president, Jacques Chirac and Mr Blair, the Irish presidency of the EU was forced to postpone the decision on a successor to Romano Prodi, who steps down at the end of October.

At an ill-tempered dinner on Thursday night, Mr Blair made clear his opposition to Mr Verhofstadt, who was France and Germany's candidate. M. Chirac said he could not support any contender whose country was outside the euro, excluding several potential candidates including Chris Patten, Britain's European Commissioner.

In the bitter aftermath, diplomats accused M. Chirac of bullying and intimidating small countries to try to get them to support Mr Verhofstadt, while Germany said the UK had led a group determined to block their candidate for the job.

Even late last night, the Belgian premier was hoping for the French to hold the entire treaty to ransom in exchange for Britain agreeing to him getting the job. "Chirac thought we would blink. We didn't," said a British official.

Confronted by the impasse, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, who chaired the meeting, said he hoped to hold another summit to clinch a deal before his country's term in the EU presidency ends this month.

The list of potential candidates was thought to include Portugal's premier, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Portugal's European Commissioner, Antonio Vitorino, Spain's Javier Solana, who is the EU's foreign affairs supremo, France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, and Mr Ahern himself.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who is seen by many as an alternative Franco-German candidate, again ruled himself out. Asked if he could be persuaded, he replied: "not in three days, not in three weeks, not in three months". But he only fuelled further speculation by holding a meeting last night with M. Chirac and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

The Franco-British row on Thursday night marked a new low point in relations between the two countries, just a few months after a summit of the UK, Germany and France was hailed as a demonstration of "trilateralism" among the nations. It also revived the divisions which burst into the open during last year's Iraq war, with the UK receiving support from Italy, Portugal, Poland and several other new member states from eastern Europe.

In the aftermath of the bitter dispute, Mr Blair's official spokesman accused France of "playing games," adding: "What we all now have to accept is that we are operating in a Europe of 25, not a Europe of six, or two, or one." He added: "There are no first or second-class citizens, we are all equal members of the European community. The rules of the 1950s no longer apply when you get to a Europe of 25."

Mr Blair's decision to block Mr Verhofstadt came almost 10 years after John Major vetoed a Belgian premier, Jean-Luc Deheane, for the job. Explaining his decision, Mr Blair said he did not mean "disrespect to anybody," but said: "I think it is important to go about choosing the president in a way that gives us the very best candidate."

Chris Patten, Britain's European Commissioner, was proposed by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, who had been nominated by the EU's centre-right political family.

M. Chirac ruled out that prospect, making it clear that the next European Commission president could not be from a country that is not part of the EU's single currency or its free travel zone, excluding a Briton, a Dane or a Swede.

With Mr Verhofstadt sitting around the table at Thursday's dinner, the Prime Minister phrased his argument delicately, saying that it was "too early" to identify a particular candidate and calling for a general discussion about the qualities required.

Another source said of the French President's stance: "It had overtones of Chirac's performance when he told the new countries of eastern Europe to shut up over Iraq. He was trying to bully them into dropping their positions. He was accusing small countries that didn't declare their support for Verhofstadt of moral cowardice."


BERTIE AHERN, Irish Prime Minister, 52

Enjoys the advantage of being from a small country, and is admired for his handling of the Irish EU presidency. A member of the Fianna Fail party, he is the youngest Irish prime minister in modern history. Speaks no French and says he does not want the job.

JOSE MANUEL DURAO BARROSO, Portuguese Prime Minister, 48

A strong contender, he leads a centre-right coalition and has served as home affairs minister and foreign minister. Trained as a lawyer, he is fluent in several European languages.

PAT COX, Irish, European Parliament president, 52

A former television presenter, he has raised the assembly's profile and won cross-party respect. He speaks good French and has the advantage of being from a small country, but the Liberal has never run a government.

JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER, Luxembourg's Prime Minister, 49

He would be the third president from the tiny state. Very experienced, he is one of EU's longest-serving leaders. He was re-elected last Sunday and has repeatedly said that he would like to stay on as Prime Minister. Speaks French, German and English fluently.

JAVIER SOLANA, Spanish, EU foreign policy chief, 61

Charismatic, he has solid political experience and was secretary general of Nato from 1995 to 1999. He is a professor of physics and served as an MP for many years, as well as holding the posts of minister for culture, education and foreign affairs. Socialist.

ANTONIO VITORINO, Portugese, European commissioner, 46

Widely respected as a former defence minister and deputy prime minister, but he has never led his country. A Socialist, he is little known outside Brussels and his home country. Speaks both English and French.

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