As votes near, Europeans wonder if they really want such close union

March 23, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It is time for second thoughts in Europe, about Europe. The drive toward federalism has slowed.

Much of the impetus given to the integration process by the treaty signed at the European Community's summit in December in Maastricht, Holland, has diminished.

"People are pausing now. There is a strong feeling it is time to consolidate," said Sir Michael Franklin, chairman of the West European Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

He added: "The whole history of the EC has been one of succeeding phases of pushing forward, then relaxing."

The Maastricht treaty, which committed the 12 member states to a single currency by the end of the century, among other things, is to be ratified this year. Some countries will do so through their national parliaments, others in referendums.

The four largest countries of the EC are holding elections. In them, Europe will be at best a heated talking point, at worst a question likely to exacerbate divisions over how much sovereignty transferred to Brussels, the Belgian capital where the EC has its headquarters, is enough.

France held regional and local elections yesterday. Britain, Germany and Italy go to the polls next month.

In Germany, which is holding state elections in early April, the prime ministers of the 16 federal states are demanding of Chancellor Helmut Kohl a veto over any transfers of national power to Brussels as their price for helping get the Maastricht treaty through the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament.

There is trouble from another quarter. The opposition Social Democrats want an end to further increases in the German contribution to the community budget as their price for supporting the treaty.

Germany already contributes the most to the budget. Recent increases in contributions -- estimated to reach $23 billion by 1997, a 33 percent rise -- have been mandated by Brussels to meet the expenses of aid to the former Soviet republics, and more help for the poorer regions within the EC.

VTC In addition, officials in the German central bank, the Bundesbank (which essentially dictates the levels at which all EC currencies are bought and sold), have expressed concern that a single currency might not be viable without further political union -- to guarantee the kind of anti-inflationary management for which the Germans are noted.

In France, the political atmosphere has changed dramatically since Maastricht, and not favorably for the treaty. Something else might have changed as well: the French attitude toward Europe.

Immediately following the agreement in Maastricht, President Francois Mitterrand returned to Paris and suggested he might hold a national plebiscite to ratify the treaty, to give the document a popular imprimatur and eminence that a vote in the National Assembly could not.

But he has changed his mind. Although he has asked for a constitutional ruling on the validity of a plebiscite, it seems now the National Assembly will ratify the treaty sometime in the summer.

In France's regional and local elections yesterday, Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist Party did badly. His unpopular prime minister, Edith Cresson, may now be forced to resign and his party put into the hands of someone better able to prepare it for the more crucial National Assembly elections next year.

In this atmosphere, particularly with the surging extremist National Front party opposing Maastricht, President Mitterrand is not thinking so much of Europe as he is of his own survival.

The sense exists that France has lost some enthusiasm for the Europe idea, which was always rooted in the assumption that France would be the political center of the community, while Germany would pay the bills and provide the influence to back French policies.

Since reunification, Germany has become more assertive in European politics. The hegemony that once was France's may have already passed to Berlin.

Britain's attitude toward Europe is one of suspicion animated by persistent resistance to initiatives designed to deepen the community. At Maastricht, Prime Minister John Major opted Britain out on both a final commitment to monetary union and from the social charter adopted by the other 11. The charter sets rules for labor relations in member countries: minimum wages, working hours, the rights of women and minors, etc.

Thus, the treaty that Britain will ratify later this year is only a part of what was agreed to by other member states.

Although Europe has not become an issue in Britain's current election campaign, it certainly might before the April 9 poll. The Labor Party criticizes the Conservative government for its opposition to further integration. Indeed, the British government is in conflict with Brussels on a whole range of issues. Britain is in particularly sharp conflict over the matter of border controls among member states that are supposed to be abolished by the end of the year.

Worse for Brussels, the presidency of the EC rotates to Britain for six months in July. Should the Conservatives still be in power then, there is little chance any new "deepening" initiatives will get a hearing during Britain's watch.

In Italy, anti-Europe nationalist movements such as the Lombardy League are gaining adherents, and the Christian Democrats, Italy's largest pro-Europe party, are expected to lose the premiership in elections in early April. Also, Italy's finances and economy are in such bad shape there is little expectation the country could meet for years the rigorous preconditions needed if it is to participate in the single currency plan.

All of this is not to suggest the European community has come to the end of its particular history. Rather, it has reached one of Professor Franklin's periods of consolidation. Whether the EC has a federal future cannot be known.

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