A Wounded Giant in Europe?

September 05, 1992

The unthinkable in western Europe has become thinkable. Even three months ago, when Danes voted to reject the Maastricht treaty to strengthen the European Community, few thought the setback to monetary and political union was more than temporary. The Irish vote ratifying the treaty two weeks later reinforced that view. But the Danish vote prompted French President Francois Mitterrand to call a referendum of his own for later this month, confident it would resoundingly support the strengthened community. That does not look like such a good bet now.

Little more than a month ago, polls in France showed growing but still minority opposition to the treaty, which would unify the EC monetary system and strengthen coordination in other areas. But now popular sentiment is divided equally, though there are many still undecided and others whose minds could change. Spokesmen for the opposition, once primarily political extremists, are now respectable leaders of centrist parties. The French government, suddenly aroused, is running scared.

And well it should be. Some of the opposition to the treaty is rooted in strictly domestic issues, like Mr. Mitterrand's unpopularity. Some stem from long-standing concerns over economic unity, like its impact on the coddled French farmer. Some result from an outbreak of right-wing riots in Germany, arousing old French fears. And some is attributable to that French word once familiar in U.S. politics, malaise -- a general sense of disillusionment with the prospect of a western Europe with few if any meaningful boundaries. That is ironic, since not long ago the French were the staunchest of the Europeans.

Second thoughts about a more unified EC are not all selfish or irrational. Certainly its recent performance gives cause for unease. The British are still balking at some aspects of political and monetary cohesion. The Germans resent the thought that the mighty Deutsche Mark might be dethroned by a single European currency. The EC has agreed that it will not intrude in areas that individual nations can still handle best themselves. But its members can't agree what those areas are. The latest EC summit was notable for its agility at avoiding decisions. And the debacle of the Europeans in trying to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia by diplomacy or force makes a mockery of both political cooperation and a common defense.

A defeat for the treaty in France would halt the march to monetary and political union. It would not kill the EC, which will nonetheless tear down its internal trade barriers next New Year's Day. But the EC would be a wounded giant, not the nascent superpower its leaders envisioned last December.

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