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Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 11:05 GMT

World: Europe

Searching for Santer's successor

The search for a heavyweight politician to replace Jacques Santer as European Commission President is in full swing.

EU in crisis
Tony Blair has already demanded that the new EU boss should be ready to give strong leadership and radically reform the commission. He has insisted that the successor should be chosen on merit rather than the old "buggins' turn" principle which, he believes, has previously landed the commission with weak, compromise candidates.

But if the selection follows the normal pattern then the next president will come from a large, socialist, southern-European country because Mr Santer is a Christian Democrat from a small northern country. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder - who holds the six-month EU presidency - has been jetting around Europe trying to find the right man for the job.

The favourites

In the immediate aftermath of the commissioners' resignations, a number of different names were circulating as possible contenders. Of these, a couple have emerged as the current favourites for the job:

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The former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi was always expected to take over from Mr Santer when his period of office expired next January. He is certainly from a large southern nation, but he is a social democrat and may not be regarded as socialist enough to fit the bill. He is a tough leader and has managed to keep some stability in Italy's notoriously-volatile political system. More importantly, he successfully prepared his country's economy for entry into the euro. He is likely to find favour with Tony Blair who has publicly praised him and already has the backing of Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema. He is also a keen cyclist.

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The Dutch prime minister Wim Kok has said he does not want the job but he may find a powerful new post irresistible. He does not fit the geographical requirement but, like some of the other contenders, has won praise for the way he has adopted a left-wing economic model and made it work. His country is prospering and has low unemployment. He is thought to be supported by the Germans, but previous attempts by Bonn to lever their man into the job have gone disastrously wrong. It was John Major's opposition to Germany-backed candidate Jean-Luc Dehaene last time around that ended with Mr Santer getting the job.

Possible contenders?

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The former Spanish foreign minister Javier Solana has been seen as a contender, though as current Secretary-General of Nato, he has more than enough to keep him occupied. His geographical and political CV is right and he is widely respected throughout Europe. He has form for taking on tough jobs in the wake of a resignation. He became Nato chief after his Belgian predecessor, Willy Claes, was forced to resign after corruption charges. He has won praise for the way he has run the organisation, particularly through the hugely-sensitive Kosovo crisis. He would have to win the backing of Spanish PM, Jose Maria Aznar Lopez, who is from a rival party.

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The name of the former Spanish socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez has been mentioned as a possible contender. He is widely respected throughout the EU and won great admiration for the way he handled his country's economy. He was secretary-general of the socialist party throughout some of its most difficult post-Franco years. He became prime minister in 1982 and remained in office for 14 years but was finally tainted by scandal amid claims there were officially-sanctioned death squads targeting Basque terrorists.

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The Portugese prime minister Antonio Guterres fits all the requirements for the job, coming from a large, southern, socialist country. Although he is not as high-profile as the top three contenders, he has won respect for the way he has run his country along modern, New Labour-style lines. He is politically close to Tony Blair, adopting a similar "third way" approach to his administration and he would almost certainly get the prime minister's support. He would have difficulties taking the job because it would mean him having to stand down as prime minister. He has previously insisted he does not want the job, but he may be persuaded to change his mind if the post is given more power.

Dark horse candidates

There are two possible dark horse candidates whose names have been floated but are highly unlikely to get the job.

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Sir Leon Brittan, the British Tory commissioner and current vice-president to Mr Santer is expected to stand down when his term of office expires next January but may become a contender. He is widely respected within the EU, even amongst his political opponents, and would be a safe pair of hands. As commissioner for trade he was largely responsible for making the single market a success and has enormous experience of both the commission and the EU. Unfortunately he is from the wrong country and the wrong political party so has virtually no chance of winning enough support. However, if a swift handover cannot be organised, he might become a caretaker president until a successor can be found. For a fuller profile of Sir Leon Brittan click here.

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The former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been touted as a possible candidate but he has never shown any interest in the job. He towered over Europe for the best part of two decades and was one of his country's most successful leaders. He is a giant figure, both politically and literally, and would certainly prove a tough commission president. But his desire to create a federal Europe would prove hugely controversial and it is virtually certain he would be vetoed by some of the other countries.

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