Why Politicians Covet The Eu Presidency

When European leaders picked Jacques Delors for the first of his three terms as president of the European Commission back in 1984, it wasn't a complicated affair. There was some thought of replacing Luxembourger Gaston Thorn with French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson. But by the time the official vote was cast, Delors was the only candidate.

Oh, what a difference a decade makes. When European Union leaders met in Corfu in late June to pick Delors' successor, there were three candidates on the list, but none won the unanimous support necessary. The bickering over a successor intensified in the weeks that followed, as the EU prepared for a July 15 summit to pick someone else. "People have actually been fighting for the job," says Stanley Crossick, chairman of the Brussels-based Belmont European Policy Center.

No wonder. Delors, who retires on Jan. 5, turned the presidency into a world-class position of power with which not only EU leaders but businesses and governments around the world have to deal. A key increase in his clout came in 1987, when the EU approved a single-market treaty, a Delors-backed idea that authorizes decisions by majority vote. Before that, his commission, which has the exclusive EU power to propose laws or initiatives, was largely ignored because the required unanimous votes were almost impossible to achieve. The EU also started strutting more on the world diplomatic stage as Delors' ideas for common trade, foreign, and security policies were implemented. "There is a new postwar reality that others have to deal with," says Susie Symes, director of the European program of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

With such influence at stake, most candidates to succeed Delors were sitting or former Prime Ministers: Jacques Santer of Luxembourg, Italy's Giuliano Amato, Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands, and Felipe Gonzlez Mrquez of Spain. Others, such as EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek of the Netherlands and Peter Sutherland, the Irish director-general of the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade organization, also made the short list. The post had clearly ceased to be the backwater it was when Delors got it.

This time around, candidates were screened for more than their nationality and political party. (Traditionally, socialists from big countries, such as Delors, had been rotated with center-right politicians from small countries, as with Thorn.) Some leaders now wanted to know what kind of EU the candidates favored: the loose confederation the British prefer or the more federal entity the Germans and French covet. The EU's most powerful politicians, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Franois Mitterrand, were also looking for a candidate less likely to challenge them--as the independent, ideological Delors did.


While the EU fiddled over the presidency, candidates for other key international posts did a slow burn as they had to wait until it was clear which EU country would owe what political debt to whom. Nowhere was the holdup more critical than at the Geneva-based GATT, where

Director General Sutherland chose to retire early, making himself available for the Delors spot. GATT is scheduled to become the World Trade Organization shortly, when a new 123-nation trade agreement goes into effect. Its new leader will need all the time he can get to prepare for administration of the complicated new trade regime the pact creates. Some Europeans back former Italian Trade Minister Renato Ruggiero as Sutherland's replacement. But Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari leads a pack that includes Brazilian Finance Minister Rubens Ricupero and Kim Chul Su, South Korea's Trade Minister.

Similarly, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development--the 25 richest nations--has been delayed in the hunt for a new secretary general. The replacement for the ailing Manfred Wurner, secretary general of the 16-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is up in the air, too. Even the EU's own defense arm has been a victim of the delay. Its secretary general, Willem van Eekelen, had to extend his term to the end of the year because it wasn't clear which EU nation would get the Delors plum.

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