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Socialists ruled out for eurpoean president { March 4 2004 }

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Europe's centre-right leader rules out socialists for top Brussels job
By George Parker and Raphael Minder in Brussels
Published: March 4 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: March 4 2004 4:00

Socialist candidates were warned yesterday that they stand little chance of becoming the next European Commission president if the centre-right wins an expected victory in the June European elections.

Hans-Gert Pöttering, leader of the European parliament's centre-right group, said his colleagues would not accept the choice by European leaders of a social democrat for the top job in Brussels.

He said his group had at least four good candidates for the post: Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's prime minister; Wolfgang Schüssel, the Austrian chancellor; Jean-Luc Dehaene, the former Belgian prime minister; and Loyola de Palacio, the European Union transport and energy commissioner.

"If we win the elections we would expect that the heads of government would propose someone from our political family," he said in an interview with the Financial Times. "It is a question of principle which heads of governments should respect."

Mr Pöttering's European People's party, which includes German Christian Democrats and the Spanish Popular party, is expected to continue as the largest group in the European parliament after the June poll.

Just a few weeks later, in the first big test of the new parliament, legislators will vote on whether to accept the nomination of EU heads of government for a successor to Romano Prodi, whose five-year term heading the Commission expires in October.

If they reject the nomination, EU leaders will have to come up with another candidate.

The parliament also has to endorse the entire new 25-member Commission in the autumn.

The next Commission president will have to rebuild morale at the EU executive and show it is capable of standing up to big member states in applying EU law and coming up with new initiatives to boost European integration.

Mr Pöttering's threat to block a social democrat nomination is being taken seriously by Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, who has the task of finding a candidate acceptable to most member states.

Mr Ahern said last month it would be "difficult" to secure parliamentary support for Antonio Vitorino, the social democratic Portuguese home affairs commissioner, widely seen as Britain's favourite for the job.

The same would probably apply to other names often linked to the job, including Paavo Lipponen, the former Finnish prime minister, and Costas Simitis, the outgoing Greek prime minister.

Mr Pöttering's putative shortlist of candidates acceptable to his group includes the frontrunner, Mr Juncker, who has German and French backing.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, French prime minister, recently told colleagues that Mr Juncker had "the wind at his back", while Belgium's Jean-Luc Dehaene had "the wind in his face".

Meanwhile the decision of Austria's Wolfgang Schüssel to go into coalition with Jörg Haider's Freedom party in 2000 still rankles with some, including Jacques Chirac, the French president.

Mr Pöttering's suggestion that Loyola de Palacio - "an excellent person" - might be a candidate is more surprising. She is an abrasive politician, often at odds with her Commission colleagues and not necessarily the choice of her party in Spain, but she is the only woman to have been mentioned as a candidate.

Mr Pöttering believes the June elections will focus on mainstream political issues such as the need to reform the economy and cut taxes, but he also says the question of Turkish membership of the EU will be important.

His Christian Democrats are opposing Turkish membership, preferring a "privileged partnership" which would open EU markets but prevent free movement of labour from Turkey.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats hope to garner Turkish votes with their strong support for Ankara's bid, which will be considered by EU leaders in December.

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