A United Europe?


South of Netherlands proper on the map is an appendage, surrounded by Belgium on the west and Germany on the east, closer to France and Luxembourg than to Amsterdam. The chief town is Maastricht. It would be hard to find a more "European" place.

Today and tomorrow, the heads of the 12 governments in the European Community will meet in Maastricht to iron out the sticking points after year-long negotiations at lower levels on two agreements: one, for a future European monetary union (or Emu, which is also a fat bird that does not fly), and the other for a political union (or Epu). The 12 leaders will either agree -- or fail.

German unification, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the demand of more countries to join the club are the engines driving this bus toward a "Europe" where commerce rules, borders vanish and wars are of interest to antiquarians. If a Finland or Croatia or Hungary wants in, it will have no doubt of the dues and the constraints. To French President Francois Mitterrand, and indeed to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, harnessing German power to Western European institutions is the way to tame Germany's burgeoning power.

The coldest feet are British, and in the ruling Conservative Party. Prime Minister John Major is walking a fine line between the cantankerous nationalism of Margaret Thatcher, and the internationalists who gave her job to him in the belief that Britain has no alternative and can best keep Europe harmless by hearty participation. But just as Britain wants an option out of Ecu (the common currency regulated by a central bank to be established by century's end under Emu), so does Denmark, if not so badly. France wants a mechanism by which those two cannot prevent or delay Ecu. The poorer "southern states," Greece, Spain and Portugal, joined by Ireland, want more regional aid, and may vote whatever way will bring it.

Talk of political union (Epu) is ambitious for a Europe that cannot cobble a policy on the gulf war or Yugoslavia. It means a growing coordination that gives the European Parliament something to do. But the Dutch treaty draft preamble called the goal "federal," -- the word that created havoc in Britain. The British got the word out, insisting on the principal of "subsidiarity" -- meaning that a decision should be taken at the lowest possible level of government -- which the federalists of the Low Countries say is what "federal" means.

The Europeans have not come this far to fail. Bargains must be struck. Mr. Major must be seen to win a concession to save his face if not his job. But there is little in Europe on which Mr. Kohl does not get his way if he cares deeply. The 12 are likely to leave Maastricht more knitted together, pending 12 ratifications, than on arrival. To the extent they do, Europe will be a more self-reliant ally, partner and rival of the U.S. than it in the past.

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