Flashing Red Light for Europe

September 22, 1992

It is difficult to see how the Maastricht Treaty for establishing a single European currency by century's end can take effect on its timetable. Where confusion reigned in European monetary affairs, a message of clarity was needed from the French electorate. In the referendum on ratification, Sunday, the French approved by such an eyelash majority that the mandate was more confusion. It was what one French politician called an amber light for monetary union. Or more likely flashing red: full stop, then proceed with caution.

Negative opinion in Britain has grown so rapidly since the breakdown of the existing European monetary arrangements that Prime Minister John Major faces revolt in his Conservative Party should he bring ratification forward in Parliament. Small wonder he called a European summit for next month, in hopes of creating wiggle room and some token of German concessions.

Meanwhile, European statesmen must remind themselves that Maastricht is already rejected. It requires unanimous ratification. Danish voters rejected it in June. Getting them to change their mind has been regarded as a formality. It may be an insurmountable hurdle. With resistance growing elsewhere, the Danish government will present a plan for halfway participation, for European partners to approve, before approaching the electorate again. This would open the door for renegotiation, which all sides fear could doom the enterprise.

It was France along with Germany that led the way to European union. If the French are reluctant, most of Europe is more so. The call for full speed ahead with hesitation, made by European Community foreign ministers at the United Nations in New York yesterday, meant little. Only at the summit does European political union have a chance to come to grips with monetary disunion. And the prospect is not rosy.

European unification is growing. The question is which way. "Deepening" (centralization of institutions) ran headlong into "widening" (the addition of members). East Germany is hard to digest. Austria, Sweden and Finland are knocking on the door. Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic are close behind. The end of the Cold War promoted the re-emergence of European nationalisms -- the monster that unification was supposed to harness.

Meanwhile, the next stage is going forward. The tedious unification of regulations affecting economic life will take effect on New Year's Day. The single market will exist. A widget that meets specifications in Spain will meet them in Ireland. But the logical subsequent step -- creation of a single currency -- is set back. It is probably delayed by years. As yet, this is not officially admitted. The object of current exercises is to rescue the treaty, with dwindling confidence it can be done.

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