EC nations OK treaties on union Britain might opt out of single currency

December 11, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

MAASTRICHT, Netherlands -- The European superstate was born here late last night, the child of a dozen fathers with varying enthusiasm for it and differing expectations for its future.

The leaders of the 12 European Community countries agreed to treaties that would amend the EC's basic document, the Treaty of Rome, and set Europe irrevocably on the road to monetary union with a single currency by the end of the century.

The treaties also ordained a deeper political union for the 12 by assuring that they would act increasingly under the guidance of single foreign and defense policies.

They extended the community's authority further into the internal affairs of the member states, in the care of the environment, in health and education. They enlarged the role of the European Parliament. They guaranteed the primacy of NATO in European defense.

More decisions in the community will be made by majority vote rather than by unanimity, as is now the case, a system many members have complained allowed one state to frustrate the will of the other 11.

Britain and Denmark regarded some of what was effected here over the last two days as intrusions into their domestic affairs, although both agreed to the treaties overall, guaranteeing the summit's success.

Britain got an opt-out protocol allowing it to decide in about five years whether to join the single currency. Denmark will decide by referendum. None of the others had reservations on the single currency.

Britain also managed to have a major section of the draft treaty virtually excluded from the final text, the so-called social charter, although the other 11 countries vowed to adhere to it in a protocol outside the treaty. It all might not have come off, however, but for a last-minute collapse by the 11 on the social policy issue before what was described by a Spanish spokesman as Britain's "intransigence."

Throughout the two days of the summit, Britain had put up the most stubborn fight on just about every issue taken up and was often alone against all its partners. It won the right to opt out of the unified monetary system and managed to get the word "federal" struck from the treaty.

Its last successful stand was against that part of the political union treaty that treats with social welfare and labor legislation throughout the EC, such things as wages, working conditions, benefits and pregnancy leave.

Prime Minister John Major's position was so unbudging through the day, it was thought for a while that the summit would collapse.

At one point the Dutch state secretary for European affairs, Piet Dankert, seemed to have just about given up. He said there was no longer any room for negotiation. "On social policy there is, I would say, a cultural difference" between the continentals and Britain, he said.

Mr. Major came to Maastricht vowing not to sign a treaty giving the EC authority over the laws that are supposed to protect British workers.

He argued that it would cost too much and put British industry at a disadvantage against the United States and Japan.

None of the other 11 agreed. France's minister for European affairs, Elisabeth Guigou, indicated just how far removed the continentals are from Britain in their view of the community, and society in general, when she said, "We don't want just a Europe of traveling salesmen, a big free-trade zone. These elements are important for us, and we want to see them in the treaty."

The ruling British Conservative Party's anti-labor policies and commitment to absolute free-market principles, as well as the party's need to cultivate the generally anti-labor business sector at home, assured that Mr. Major would show little flexibility in this area.

He showed none, and his position so riled French President Francois Mitterrand that he suggested that Britain opt out of the social chapter.

In the end, a compromise was reached when the other 11 agreed to strike the ambitious social chapter from the treaty.

"This is one of the best developments we've had in the whole two days," said a senior British official, adding, "It remains to be seen how everyone interprets it."

With Britain now standing aside from its EC partners on two vital issues, it is likely to reinforce doubts about Britain's commitment to the community and raise questions on its future within the EC.

Of this, President Mitterrand said, "The fact that one country could not erase the march forward of the others is a considerable fact."

Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl called the agreement "a decisive breakthrough."

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