The Belgians, the Italians and especially the British won't like it. But rescuing Europe from its current malaise probably depends on France and Germany once more getting their act together and presenting their EC partners with a fait accompli.
The European Community faces savagery on its Balkan porch, potential chaos from Algiers to Moscow, and a more civil but still ominous disarray in its own ranks. Europe needs a smaller core of decisive and truly unified nations to put out whatever fires are extinguishable and to contain those that aren't. The current community of 12 -- already too large and too diverse in interests -- is pulling the fire truck in almost 12 different directions.
France and Germany alone, however, could theoretically marshal the economic and military muscle to set a straighter course. The rest of Europe could then help out or stay on the sidelines, according to capability and whim.
Crisis in the EC is nothing new. On numerous occasions throughout its history, the Community has appeared stalled and even hopeless. Each time, France and Germany took it upon themselves to lead the way -- announcing a project and then moving forward with whichever of their neighbors agreed. And in each case, the initially recalcitrant neighbors eventually rallied to the cause. All indications suggest the newly-elected French government will be as committed to the Franco-German efforts as its predecessor.
The original European Coal and Steel Community of 1952, the EEC itself (founded in 1958), and the 1978 Paris-Bonn initiative to link the franc and mark through a "European Monetary System" all fit this pattern. Under Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl (as odd a couple as the two countries they represent), the Franco-German motor for Europe has been even more impressive, culminating in the 1990 proposal for a European "political union" that led to the 1991 signing of the Maastricht treaty.
Like its predecessors, Maastricht was a Franco-German effort to catapult Europe out of difficulty. The idea came largely from Mr. Mitterrand, who was irritated that Germany intended to put itself back together without asking permission from the victors of World War II. Mr. Mitterrand tried and failed to block or slow the reunification. But the Germans were happy to grant Paris a consolation prize: faster European unity, to create the gilded cage that would restrain German power and ambitions. Germany even agreed to give up the deutsche mark.
Yet by the time it became a treaty acceptable to all 12 members of the EC, the political union was already looking frayed. After 18 months of bickering over political, military and economic objectives, the Maastricht negotiations had produced a
patchwork of concessions and compromises that resulted in an unreadable treaty of hundreds of pages and thousands of clauses, sub-chapters and cross-references and other legal somersaults. It was hardly an elegant constitution. Now even this mediocre result is in doubt, with Danish voters having rejected it, the British unwilling to risk a ratification vote, and a currency crisis having blasted Italy and Britain out of the EMS.
All of this raises an old but still pertinent question: Should Germany and France, perhaps together with the small Benelux countries, now move forward alone, hoping eventually to bring the others in their wake?
In economic terms, a monetary union comprising this smaller core would certainly be feasible immediately, as former Bundesbank President Karl-Otto Pohl, a tireless critic of the larger union, keeps pointing out.
In macroeconomic terms, the French and German economies have already converged. France's victory over inflation is one of Europe's great success stories. French price inflation is now lower than the German rate (which shot up because of the costs of reunification and Mr. Kohl's Reaganesque strategy for financing them). The Belgians and Dutch are also able to keep up with the Germans, and Luxembourg, tiny and rich, presents no problem either. These five could set up a European currency union tomorrow, inviting Britain, Italy and others to join when they are ready.
Military cooperation is also well under way and seems rather more feasible than the wider "common foreign and security policy" sought at Maastricht. Last year's Kohl-Mitterrand agreement to set up a Franco-German military corps of 35,000 soldiers is but the latest (and most far-reaching) in a long line of bilateral security initiatives.
To be sure, the Franco-German corps has problems, including the heavy pacifist baggage of the German left. German troops are for now legally (or at least politically) prohibited from acting in the very sort of contingencies for which the corps might be most useful, such as peacekeeping missions outside of Europe or an intervention in Yugoslavia.
Still, to point out the difficulties with Franco-German military cooperation does not so much undermine the idea of a Franco-German union as it demonstrates that prospects for a European defense built around the whole Community are even more far-fetched. No one should think that a Franco-German-British-Italian-Greek-Portuguese-et cetera corps would be any easier or more effective.
Last September's currency crisis set off an animated discussion of a Franco-German deal in the European press, think tanks and parliamentary drinking holes. Officially, both Bonn and Paris reject the prospect. The idea of a "two-speed" Europe has always been something of a taboo within EC councils, raising, as it does, a number of problems.
First, those remaining in lower gear, such as the British, Greeks and Italians, will object, as they always have. No one wants to be marginalized, and these part-time members of the club will fear a loss of influence over its rules. Moreover, exemption from a monetary union might remove the main source of budgetary and anti-inflationary discipline from such economies as the British and Italian.
Second, three putative members of this more limited European club -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- would probably also balk. These smaller states feel more comfortable in a larger community; they've always been afraid of domination by their two big neighbors.
Franco-German union would also dramatize a third problem, the EC's so-called "democratic deficit," which is another way of sayings it isn't very democratic. In the community's present setup, important decisions are made at gatherings of ministers (finance ministers for taxes, transport ministers for trucks, etc.) from the various governments. An appointed European Commission implements these decisions and proposes new ones.
The European Parliament, the EC's directly elected body, is not much more than a multilingual talking shop. To fill this democratic deficit, Europe's more enthusiastic architects propose to endow the Parliament with real legislative power and to make EC ministers more accountable to it.
If France and Germany take the helm more overtly, most of the pretense of creating a more democratic European union has been sketchy at best anyway. Europe's postwar leadership, not lacking for thoughtful and even brilliant statesmen, has not managed to produce a Hamilton or a Madison -- most likely because a federal Europe is fundamentally unworkable.
One can hardly imagine how the American founding fathers would have approached 12 or more European countries with different languages, cultures, histories and leaders who derive their present legitimacy from their own national political structures. The EC is, and will probably remain, a collection of sovereign states.
Whatever the problems, and however much they deny it, France and Germany will almost certainly move ahead on their own rather then let the whole European project founder. The rest of the world should probably applaud them, for at least two reasons.
First, the recent eruption of xenophobia in Germany reminds us why it is reassuring to have German power intimately entangled with France and other neighbors. To be sure, the massive and peaceful counter-demonstrations in cities across the country have shown that democratic values and the idea of tolerance are deeply rooted to postwar German culture. Nonetheless, we are still some way from being able to view an unattached Germany with equanimity.
Finally, the end of Europe's Cold-War division presents the European Community with a dilemma. It makes sense to extend the community's economic and political stability eastwards to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and perhaps even beyond. Negotiations on admitting the richer non-members like Austria and Scandinavia have already started.
But a decisive and cohesive EC, already a dubious proposition for 12, becomes well-nigh impossible after much further enlargement. Some kind of variable geometry -- a "core" Europe and an outer Europe -- is probably the only formula for reconciling this dilemma. In the end, a Europe a deux is better than no Europe at all.
Dana Allin, a visiting scholar at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik near Munich, is writing a book on the American-Soviet-West European triangle during the Cold War. Philip Gordon, author of "A Certain Idea of France: French Security Policy and the Gaullist Legacy," is a visiting scholar at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik in Bonn.