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Uncertainty over Britain's leadership slows decisions

Looking riskier by the day, the fate of British Prime Minister John Major overshadowed the summit conference of the 15-member European Union from the beginning here Monday, lessening chances of dragging the EU out of stagnation.

With the emergence of an anti-European opponent from his own Cabinet, Major's gamble in calling for a new election to confirm him as leader of Britain's Conservative Party looked even riskier.

In next Tuesday's election his opponent will be 44-year-old John Redwood, a right-wing intellectual who has been secretary of state for Wales, a post he resigned shortly before making his announcement Monday afternoon.

The uncertainty over Britain's future leadership made agreement on several issues unlikely. Major is hardly in a position to compromise on anything when the challenge comes from Euro-skeptics in the Conservative Party who oppose his even lukewarm support for European unity.

For three years they have been demanding a cold shoulder in line with Margaret Thatcher's famous "No, no, no."

Klaus Haensch, president of the European Parliament, worried that the uncertainty could paralyze decisionmaking for two or three months.

"It will not do to have one domestic policy in one country paralyze the European Union," he said.

EU officials said that the effect of the meeting here would be quite widespread on difficult decisions like the formation of Europol, a Europewide police intelligence center. British Conservatives oppose it because it gives certain powers to the European Court of Justice that they claim infringe on national courts.

Another difficult decision was on aid to some 70 Third World countries, mainly in Africa. Both Britain and Germany have opposed French proposals to increase aid, and the best France could obtain here is to freeze it at past levels.

French President Jacques Chirac, elected in May, had hoped to turn this summit meeting into a success for both France and himself by trying to shake the EU out of its inability to act on many of the issues before it.

The effort has been stalled and overshadowed by the attention being given to what is happening in London.

Coming out of the EU summit here Monday night, Major's only comment was that he welcomed the challenge from Redwood and expected to win. Other members in Major's 22-member Cabinet stuck by him, including Employment Secretary Michael Portillo on the right of the party.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, also in Cannes, commented:

"I don't think the Conservative Party could win an election in a thousand years with this ultra-right (Redwood's) program."

Things may not be quite that simple. Redwood, despite his disclaimers, is likely to be only a stalking-horse whose candidacy is designed to deny Major the needed majority to continue as party leader on the first ballot.

If Major fails to beat him by more than half the Conservative members of Parliament and, in addition, 15 percent more than his rival, there will be a second round of voting.

That in turn could bring out more serious contenders, perhaps even Portillo from the right and Michael Heseltine, a liberal Tory who is president of the Board of Trade.

This same scenario is how Margaret Thatcher lost her job to Major five years ago. She is now among the Euro-skeptics who on most issues, oppose him.

The first meeting of the EU leaders focused on Europe's 18-million unemployed, some 11 percent of the total work force. As Jacques Santer, head of the EU's executive commission reminded the others Monday, 22 percent of those under 25 were unemployed and 45 percent were classified as long-term jobless.

"We will have to work hard to avoid a social explosion," Santer said.

Several leaders went out of their way to underline the conventional wisdom that reducing the budget deficit to meet the strict criteria for introducing a single European currency would at the same time bring down unemployment instead of increasing it as critics contend.

Over dinner, Chirac won approval for a new five-point initiative, yet another, to bring peace to Bosnia after nearly three years of war.

The first point was to open a corridor to lift the siege of Sarajevo, which Chirac was nevertheless quick to say would be achieved by a new diplomatic resolve, not by shooting the way through.

The EU would still insist on a year-old plan for a 51-49 division of Bosnia that would require the Bosnian Serbs to give up 20 percent of what they have conquered. Croatia and the Serbs of the Krajina border area will be asked to resume talks.

Serbia would be asked to recognize the borders of its neighbors, and all parties would be asked to observe another four-month cease-fire like that negotiated last year by former President Jimmy Carter.

None of this was new. What was new, Chirac insisted, was a new firmness backed by a French-British rapid reaction force, which would not allow the U.N. blue helmets to be pushed around even if it would not enforce a peace.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, whose mission will be to negotiate all this, commented: "We have a duty to try."