LONDON -- The road to European economic and political unity has never been smooth, but Prime Minister John Major raised the ZTC possibility yesterday that it might come to a dead end in just two months, at least as far as Britain is concerned.
Although he has not said so publicly, his office has let it be known that Britain might veto a treaty on European unity, scheduled to be signed by the 12-nation European Community in Maastricht, Netherlands, in December.
If that happens, the entire process of European integration, started more than 30 years ago with the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, will grind to a halt or limp along without Britain, and possibly without some other members as well.
Mr. Major's ire was triggered by a series of initiatives for inclusion in the treaty advanced early this week by the Dutch government, which currently holds the presidency of the EC. They were seen here as both radical and surprising.
The Dutch contend that no one should have been taken by surprise because the initiatives had been advanced privately to all EC diplomats for several days. But once they leaked, Mr. Major was compelled to react.
The most serious among them are proposals to give the European Commission (the EC's executive) participation in the formulation of the foreign policies of member governments and to increase the authority of the European Court of Justice to adjudicate within member states. Another proposal would allow the EC heads of state to effectively veto military security decisions made by individual national governments.
As an example, a spokesman for the Dutch government said yesterday that had the proposed rules been in effect in August 1990, and had a majority of the EC leaders decided against supporting the rescue of Kuwait, Britain could not have sent troops to the Persian Gulf without putting itself in violation of community rules.
Other proposals in the Dutch package would increase the power of the European Parliament dramatically by letting it pass Europe-wide laws on the environment, research and development and foreign aid, and would include in the treaty words referring to the community's "federal vocation."
"We are not opposed to increasing the authority of the European Parliament," Mr. Major said at a luncheon with U.S. correspondents yesterday. "We are emphatically opposed to the foreign policy and security aspects of the proposals."
Later, he pointed out that Europe had been traveling in the direction of a "greater degree of integration," but he said it would only be viable if it proceeded "on the basis of cooperation, not compulsion."
Although he said his government had "very serious reservations about the Dutch text," he said he still believed that an acceptable treaty could be negotiated for Britain to sign at Maastricht.
Whether agreement can be reached by December is uncertain. But two things are apparent. One is that the British are not the only ones shocked by the Dutch initiative. "The French agree with us," Mr. Major said. Second, the whole affair has given a tremendous boost to the anti-Europe forces in Britain, led by Mr. Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.
This should have been the last thing the Dutch would want to do. They are among the more passionate proponents of faster and deeper economic and political union among the 12 nations that form the EC.
On Monday, Mrs. Thatcher addressed the Heritage Foundation in Washington and again savaged the idea of European federalism, which is seen in some capitals on the Continent at least as the logical objective of the process of integration.
Mrs. Thatcher, during her last year as prime minister, grew to be stridently anti-Europe. It put her out of tune with most Britons, who have revealed in Gallup Polls over the past year to favor Britain's commitment to Europe. It was this anti-Europe posture, among other things, that led the Conservative Party to force her out as its leader and replace her with Mr. Major last year.
Since taking office, Mr. Major has committed Britain to a cautious tightening of ties with the EC. His strategy has been to declare Britain's commitment to the EC but never to define how deep it would go and to move ahead step by step. He has favored monetary union but has not yet agreed to go all the way to accepting a single currency.