At the Altar, Europeans Get an Attack of Bride's Jitters


Paris -- The unification of Europe has come to an awkward pause as a direct result of the agreement meant to accelerate it. The Treaty of Maastricht, agreed at the last summit meeting of the European governments in December, now awaits ratification the public or parliaments in the member-states of the European Community. Several are balking.

The treaty includes provisions limiting the sovereignty of the Community states. The most dramatic is creation of an independent European Central Bank, with a common currency for Europe, the "ecu," an English acronym for "European currency unit." Cries of pain and outrage have gone up that the pound sterling and the French franc would be lost to the world and all the EC's national fiscal policies submitted to the domination of faceless men beyond political accountability. It is held that Germany would dominate this bank, and hence all its neighbors' economies.

The reaction is much exaggerated on several counts, the first of them being that Germany in its present economic confusion is in no condition to dominate Europe. British and French inflation rates now are below Germany's, and the French are even talking of revaluing the franc against the deutschemark. All the European currencies already are bound to one another within the European currency union, and the ecu already exists as an accounting and investment unit.

Europe's businessmen already take currency union for granted, and none write exchange-rate risk provisions into a contract with other Europeans because none exists. The exchange risks are in dealing with the dollar and yen zones. The industrial strategies of European companies have for a decade been based on the expectation of the economic union confirmed in the Maastricht agreement. Politicians may argue against monetary union, but when they consult their business constituencies they will decide for ratification.

A more sensitive issue is that Maastricht creates a "European citizenship" in parallel with national citizenships, and gives European citizens the right to vote in municipal and European parliament elections throughout the EC. This seems on the one hand mere common sense; on the other it raises the threat of foreigners having the deciding vote in towns and villages near frontiers and in vacation and resort communities.

A French National Front candidate has already denounced the danger posed by the many British who have settled in the Dordogne region of France -- one of the areas most fought over during the Hundred Years' War between England and France! There is a serious possibility that the Danes will reject Maastricht in a plebiscite June 2, and a crucial issue is the number of Germans who have bought summer homes in Denmark and now could vote there.

There is a problem about non-European foreigners. The treaty has the EC ruling on visas to enter Europe. Immigration is a very sensitive issue, and if internal frontiers are abolished the fear is that people from the Third World will enter Europe through the countries with the least efficient border police or the longest sea coasts. There are also concerns over crime and terrorism.

The treaty does not address the difficulties presented by expanding the European Community to Eastern Europe. This not only puts new economic demands on the EC, but it also PTC challenges its political structure. Decisions are difficult enough now, with 12 governments to consult and bring to agreement. Expansion demands delegation of decision-making. The treaty includes a mechanism for taking certain decisions by qualified majority, but this is so complex that its practical value is doubted.

The commission's president, Jacques Delors, has just proposed increase in its powers, to be debated at the next European summit, in Lisbon, June 26. Either the European Commission and Parliament are given greater powers or an expanded EC risks foundering in the quest for unanimity.

The Maastricht Treaty says that "the Union and its Member States will define and implement a foreign policy and a common security policy dealing with all areas of foreign relations and security." As the head of the French Institute for International Relations, Thierry de Montbrial, has recently written, "the real threat to be feared is impotence," so long as unanimity is required -- as Europe's experience with the Yugoslav crisis has shown.

But, even without a unanimity rule, it is all but impossible to see the European states as a whole -- the Twelve, or the Twelve plus new members -- conducting a common foreign and security policy involving positive decisions, crisis interventions and operations out of the European area. Those will come only as the result of individual national initiatives or through ad hoc coalitions among states particularly concerned and willing to act.

The Maastricht agreement must be ratified by all the EC member-states to become law -- and it may fail. Ratification by Denmark is particularly in doubt. Recent polls have shown a plurality against the treaty. There is some doubt about Irish ratification, as a result of the abortion controversy in Ireland.

Ratification has become a major issue in France, with both conservative and socialist forces divided, but the treaty won approval yesterday, as it will in Germany, where there nonetheless has been a strong reaction against abandoning the deutschemark and against still more aid for the poorer regions of Europe. The Maastricht debate in Britain took place before the treaty text was agreed in December, although it could be reopened by the new Delors proposals.

Most of what the treaty proposes could be done without #F ratification. Economic unification is coming by way of the 1992 Single Market, and for many practical purposes currency union already exists. Social legislation can be adopted by acts of the individual parliaments. But political union, in the ambitious terms set out in the treaty, could be blocked -- and may also be unnecessary or imprudent. It is possible that the Maastricht negotiators overreached themselves.

Europe exists as a moral and even political reality whatever the words on paper. It certainly is an economic reality. There is a European consciousness and a European will to act, as well as a European identity. Symbolism, however, has always been important in the construction of Europe, and if the Maastricht Treaty has to be renegotiated the symbolic defeat for Europe will be considerable. But it will not be fatal.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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