Maastricht treaty, meant to unify, is unleashing dissension in Europe

September 28, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- No one could have foreseen what the European Community's leaders were unleashing on that cold day last November in Maastricht, the Netherlands, when they approved the treaty on European political and monetary union.

Their intention was to further European unity. But the treaty seems to be producing the opposite effect. Nothing in the EC's 35-year history has introduced such dissension as the Maastricht Treaty.

The reaction against Maastricht has provoked questioning about the basic idea of the EC, which posits that the economic and political integration of the states of Europe will make them a stronger entity, enable them to better compete with the two superpowers of the world economy, the United States and Japan.

Maastricht has also destabilized the received wisdom that integration would stifle once and for all the kind of truculent nationalisms that twice in this century have ignited wars and laid waste to Europe.

Instead Maastricht seems to have awakened these old furies. At least they were evident in France during the referendum campaign for the treaty approved last Sunday, those chauvinistic expressions of fear and distrust of Germany. They are evident in Britain now as elements within the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major blame the Germans for the collapse of the pound sterling in the last two weeks.

The language favored to describe what is going on in Europe these days is the language of war, with references to the bloodied franc, the siege against the pound, the lira and the peseta, the "battle against international currency speculators," and so forth.

Maybe it is appropriate. In a way Maastricht has plunged Europe into an intellectual civil war. It is a war of words. It is passionately fought. The stakes are big; the winners will define Europe's future.

It is also a war in another respect, in that it is being fought in many battles, on many fronts.

Last week speculators tried to force the devaluation of the French franc. France put up interest rates to 13 percent to discourage them (successfully it seems), and the German Bundesbank -- the independent central bank that sets the parameters of Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism -- lent the assistance it

was not willing to lend to Britain when the pound sterling came under pressure the week before.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, the German money men believe the British economy is weak and the pound needed to be devalued. Second, the French economy is stronger than Britain's and is more important to the EC than Britain's. It and the German economy form the axis on which the EC turns.

By defending the franc, the Germans are defending the community and the ERM, the system which, if things go as planned, will lead Europe eventually to a single currency-- if not for all EC states, at least some.

On another front, in Spain the government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez last week laid prohibitive fines on people trying to borrow to speculate in the currency. It had the aim of protecting the peseta from a further devaluation. Spain is determined to remain in the ERM; membership in the EC has been good for its economy. It has brought millions of dollars into the poorer regions of the country.

Ireland and Portugal also applied currency controls to protect the punt and the escudo.

In Denmark last week, the government of Prime Minister Paul Schluter suggested that a new supplement be drafted in connection with the Maastricht treaty, possibly defining more clearly the duties of the community bureaucracy and those of the member states. Denmark has said it would submit the Maastricht treaty to another referendum next year, but only if some kind of change, if not in the treaty at least attached to it -- such as a protocol or declaration -- is devised.

Denmark rejected the treaty by a razor-thin majority in a referendum on June 2. It was the only defeat the treaty has suffered, since the Irish and French then ratified it. The strategy among Europe's pro-Maastricht's forces, which include the political leaders of the 12 states, has been to try to find a way to get the Danes to reverse themselves.

But it is in Britain where the future of Europe, or at least that future as defined by the Maastricht treaty, will probably be decided. Nowhere is the resentment of the Brussels, Belgium, bureaucracy so vehement; nowhere is the idea of Euro-federalism so suspect; and nowhere else is the resistance to a single currency so tenacious.

Britain, in fact, managed to get inserted into the treaty an out for itself from the final stage of monetary union -- that is, the opportunity to decide for itself whether it would take the final step toward monetary union.

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