HE represents Europe at summits of the Group of Seven countries, speaks with the voice of the European Union to both the 340 million citizens of the Union and the rest of the world, and symbolizes what Europe is and what it expects to become.
He has been president of the EU's Commission since 1985 - the Frenchman Jacques Delors. But after 10 years of what many EU observers consider one of the most productive presidencies in the Commission's four-decade existence, and certainly its highest-profiled one (some refer to the French Socialist as ``president of Europe'' or simply ``Mr. Europe''), Mr. Delors will step down in December.
Delors's announced departure has opened a heated contest for the man (as of now, no women figure as candidates) who will be asked to incarnate a Europe facing challenges undreamed of during the relatively stable era before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as leaders of the EU accelerate the back-room dealing for Delors's successor, the public of this Union that is trying to become more democratic and ``draw closer to the people'' sees that it has very little say in the process.
Some analysts argue that the Commission, which proposes and enforces Union law, has lost some of its influence and stature in the last few years as a nationalist wave has washed over Europe. But Stanley Crossick, director of the Belmont European Policy Center in Brussels, where the Commission sits, expects the Commission president's role as spokesman for Europe to grow along with the Union.
The Commission presidency ``is a far more important and high-profile job than it once was,'' he says.
The EU's current membership of 12 countries is expected to jump to 15 or 16 next year as Austria, Finland, Norway, and Sweden vote on joining, and to as many as 20 around the turn of the century with the first Eastern European candidates.
EU leaders are expected to make their choice at their June summit in Greece. And although a list of favorites is circulating among governments, observers caution that the bargaining process could still deliver a surprise.
``It's important to emphasize that at this point in the process 10 years ago, Jacques Delors's name did not even figure on the list,'' Mr. Crossick says.
Long-time Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers was long considered the top runner for the post, since he enjoyed the support of the Union's ``Big Three:'' Germany, France, and Britain. Coming after Delors, Mr. Lubbers, a Christian Democrat, would satisfy an unwritten rule to alternate the presidency between big- and small-member countries, and between left and right politicians.
Yet while British Prime Minister John Major still supports Lubbers's candidacy - along with Spanish Premier Felipe Gonzalez - both German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand are said to have cooled on him. Both leaders believe that as president of the 1991 summit that delivered the Maastricht Treaty for deeper European union, Lubbers caved in too readily to British demands to ``opt out'' of certain treaty provisions.
With Mr. Mitterrand leaving office next May and with Mr. Kohl facing tough elections in October, both leaders want to be sure Europe is in the hands of a staunch integrationist for the EU's institutional revision, planned for 1996.
The current rising star is Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, a key figure in resolving several heated disputes that threatened the Union last year, including the location of such prized EU institutions as the forerunner of a future European Central Bank, and France's quarrel with its partners over trade policy.
``The first quality everyone recognizes in him is that of a negotiator,'' says one Belgian official. Other observers say Mr. Dehaene's success in Belgium, a delicately balanced federation of French and Flemish communities, could make him a natural for the job as head of a linguistically and culturally diverse Union.
But his experience as a federalist at home, and his support for a steadily more-federal Europe, make him suspect in British eyes.
Other names on the list include Sir Leon Brittan of Britain, the Union's trade commissioner; Peter Sutherland, director-general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and a former Commission member; and Mr. Gonzalez.
One strike against Dehaene is a perceived lack of charisma - a potentially fatal blow for someone expected to take ``Europe'' to the public. He is virtually unknown outside Belgium. That could change by December since, for the first time, the European Parliament must approve the new Commission president. But no one doubts that the EU leaders' choice will end up the next ``Mr. Europe.''