BRITAIN'S rejection of Jean-Luc Dehaene as president of the European Commission signals an attempt by London to assert strong influence on the direction Europe will take in the next five years.
Prime Minister John Major's officials say he is determined to make a stand against a Europe that is overcentralized and committed to what he sees as unrealistic economic and political goals.
He wants a loosely united European Union, with the emphasis on encouragement of trade and drawing in new members.
At last weekend's summit meeting in Corfu, Greece, Mr. Major defied the other 11 leaders of the EU and vetoed Mr. Dehaene as successor to Jacques Delors.
His action will force Germany, Dehaene's main backer, to call another summit meeting to choose a replacement candidate when the Bonn government takes over the rotating presidency of the European Council of Ministers on July 1. An emergency summit has been set for July 15, Bonn officials said yesterday.
Rejection not personal
British officials stressed that Major's rejection of Dehaene had not been taken on personal grounds, but because of the policy approach he represents.
The British prime minister told a press conference in Corfu on Friday that he could not support the Belgian prime minister because he stood for ``a tradition of big government.''
What was needed, Major said, was a president ``whose instincts are for enterprise, openness, and subsidiarity.''
Subsidiarity is a term used to describe attempts to decentralize power to national capitals instead of concentrating it in Brussels.
When he returned to London, Major authorized government officials to stress that he would continue to resist efforts by Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, with backing from French President Francois Mitterrand, to persuade the EU to choose what the officials called ``a centralizer.''
Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, gave Major strong support yesterday. He said Britain would not accept Dehaene ``under any circumstances.''
Mr. Hurd said the EU needed a Commission president who could ``draw all 12 states together,'' not create division among the members.
The British leader's tough stand pleased many senior Conservatives who are opposed to what they see as moves to turn the EU into a federal grouping in which national governments have less and less say over policy.
But although Major may have succeeded in papering over divisions on European policy within his own government, he has triggered a serious conflict in EU affairs.
Britain has almost certainly made it impossible for the EU to endorse Dehaene; or Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch prime minister; or Leon Brittan, the EU's trade commissioner. Mr. Lubbers and Mr. Brittan also were candidates at the Corfu summit. Voting on a new Commission president has to be unanimous.
``Britain has made things very difficult for us. In effect, we have to start all over again to find a candidate who can command the unanimous support of the 12 governments,'' a London-based German official says.
Major is not alone
Although Major's position looks isolated, EU diplomatic sources say there is considerable resentment by the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain over the way Dehaene's candidacy had been proposed by Germany and France.
Earlier this year, Mr. Kohl indicated that he would support Lubbers, but after a meeting with Mr. Mitterrand he decided to switch support to the Belgian premier.
In the two weeks before the Corfu summit, the German chancellor strongly advocated Dehaene's candidacy.
Major's officials privately accused the Bonn and Paris governments of trying to ``gang up'' on the rest of the EU.
British government sources say Major will use the next two weeks trying to muster support from the Dutch, Italian, and Spanish governments for a collective bid to head off any further attempt by Germany and France to impose their will on the EU.
Among possible contenders to replace Delors are Ireland's Peter Sutherland, head of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and Renato Ruggiero, a former Italian trade minister.
Mr. Sutherland is a resolute free trader, and may be opposed by France. Mr. Ruggerio is already a candidate for the presidency of the new Geneva-based World Trade Organization.
The timetable for ending the deadlock over choosing the next Commission president is looking extremely tight. The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, is set to endorse the 12 governments' nominee on July 20.