If Delors Jumps Ship, European Unity Could Founder

Will Jacques Delors jilt Brussels for Paris? With France's Socialists in deep political trouble, the power corridors of the European Community are buzzing with the possibility that its intellectual, enigmatic President may soon get an offer he can't refuse: the French Premiership and the inside track at eventually succeeding President Francois Mitterrand. But with the EC's unity drive facing mounting challenges, that prospect has Brussels insiders squirming. "God only knows what will happen to Europe without Delors," says veteran Brussels lobbyist Stanley Crossick.

In six years at the EC helm, Delors, 66, has won much glory as the man who has transformed European unity from dream to near reality. For Delors, Brussels has been the ideal platform for an eventual run at the Elysee Palace.

BODY BLOW? The former French Finance Minister would prefer to put off a return to France until the end of another EC term in 1995. But if the French Socialists receive the heavy drubbing some forecasters expect in regional elections on Mar. 22, the beleaguered Mitterrand would find it hard to resist tapping Delors as a white knight to replace floundering Prime Minister Edith Cresson. Last year, Delors, France's most popular political figure, promised to take the post if asked.

Unfortunately, the EC can ill afford a leadership crisis now. With the launch of a single European market entering the final countdown to Jan. 1, even Delors' diplomatic skills will be sorely tested in the coming months. He already has a fierce battle on his hands over who gets stuck paying for the EC's burgeoning $87 billion budget.

The EC's top honcho will also be called on to help push the Maastricht treaty on political and economic union, which was cobbled together last December, through tough ratification battles in each of the 12 EC countries. Current polls show that the first vote on the measure on June 2 in Denmark will be a tight contest. In Germany, voters are increasingly skeptical about the wisdom of sacrificing the rock-solid German mark for a single European currency.

A departure by Delors before his term expires at yearend would create an immediate EC leadership vacuum. None of the current EC commissioners, one of whom would act as temporary President, has the stature to broker a major deal. A potentially divisive battle for a permanent replacement for Delors has already started. Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis is often mentioned as a candidate. But Dutch Prime Minister Rudolph Lubbers is the frontrunner. He would in part be a surrogate for the Germans, who feel entitled to the next presidency but may not insist for fear of seeming too assertive. Whoever takes over would likely shuffle the EC staff. That could threaten the current dominance of freemarketers such as Competition Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan.

Such pitfalls for Europe argue strongly for Delors to stay on. But in France, a different dynamic is at work. Delors' return would permit him to take credit for a French economy that seems to be poised for revival. That could also provide him with the necessary momentum to squeeze past former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, the socialist hierarchy's candidate to succeed Mitterrand.

In the next two weeks, Mitterrand and Delors may have to decide between the interests of their party and those of greater Europe. In fact, luring Delors home now would cast doubt on France's commitment to the European Community. But the old axiom that all politics are local may still apply--even in the new Europe.